In sports, it’s not whether you win or lose that matters. It’s how you tell your story. This is why some of us are sports fanatics. Sure, we root for our team, and we follow the stats, and we applaud a particularly elegant play. But what we really like are the stories that emerge from the sporting life. Many of them are classic, traditional narratives of underdogs triumphant (David v. Goliath) and hubris punished. And sometimes it’s simply a story about someone trying to do something very difficult, under pressure, under duress, with the whole world watching, and triumph separated from defeat by the narrowest of margins. That’s why, out in Denver, I’m watching the big story unfolding. The Broncos are going to jettison Tim Tebow in favor of Peyton Manning. Wow — where to begin?
A refresher for those who don’t follow this closely: It wasn’t that long ago — six months — that Tebow was the biggest story in the NFL and probably in all of sports. (As a dirt road Gator, I’ve followed him since he first started backing up Chris Leak in Gainesville, and he went on to help win a couple of national championships and a Heisman Trophy.) Tebow took a losing Broncos team and made it a winner. Still, his stats were terrible, the experts said he couldn’t throw, and ESPN’s new QB metric declared that he couldn’t play football. What no one seemed to be able to measure was what we call the Tebow Effect: He made everyone around him better. His team won games. The Broncos made the playoffs and Tebow felled the mighty Steelers on the first play from scrimmage in overtime with a laser pass across the middle that Thomas took to the house.
But John Elway, the Broncos vice president, was looking at Tebow through the eyes of someone who knew how to play the game better than just about anyone in the history of the NFL. When Peyton Manning became available as a free agent, Elway saw what he wanted. Manning is one of those very few people who arguably could be considered an even greater quarterback than Elway.
It’s a no-brainer. You have to pick Manning. Right? Biggest free agent aquisition in history.
The story doesn’t end there, though. Because Manning has to prove he can still play. Sure, he’s got an amazing resume — a Super Bowl victory, plus four MVPs, which is the record. But he’s, what, 36? Hello, Father Time. Historically someone that age has only two or three good seasons left. We’re not sure Manning has even one, because he missed all of 2011 with a neck injury.
So there’s one story: The Manning Comeback. Look for the Lion in Winter to take his team to the Super Bowl.
Don’t forget there’s still Tebow. He has to get traded. It may be that what we saw in Denver was a fluke, and that Tebow may never start a game under center again. But that’s hard to believe. More likely, Tebow winds up in Jacksonville, or perhaps Miami, and we get to see another storyline unfold — Tebow proving again that he is a legitimate NFL quarterback.
And what if a Tebow-led Jaguars team somehow winds up facing the Manning-led Broncos in an NFL playoff game? That game will be hyped so intensely in the media, I promise it’ll blow out the tubes in your TV console.
The other big sports story recently was also Tebowesque: Jeremy Lin’s appearance out of nowhere to be a superstar point guard for the Knicks. Again, it’s the underdog story. Lin was nobody. He sat at the end of the bench. He was about to be cut. He was living on his brother’s couch. No one had ever heard of him. Suddenly he takes over at point guard and his team goes on a winning streak and Lin drops 38 on the Lakers. Great story.
Here’s another great story about to hit: Tiger Woods wins the Masters.
Unless he doesn’t. Which isn’t as good a story.
Unless Rory McIlroy beats Tiger in a playoff.
If Tiger beats Rory, that’s a story for the ages.
(Am trying to figure out how to work Phil Mickelson into the narrative but I think, as usual, he’s somewhere off stage at the key moment.)
Ultimately, the general managers of sports have to make dispassionate decisions about who plays, who gets traded, who gets signed to the big contract, and in this age of Moneyball and sabermetrics there are all kinds of statistical indices to help the bosses discern value. But as fans, we like a good story.
Especially if it’s a story that includes the part where our team, or favorite player, wins.