Any veteran armchair quarterback knows that most of the NFL stars who actually play quarterback no longer remain with one team for their entire careers. But even for hard-core cynics, this week’s musical-chairs-type movement in Denver was new territory.
Dumped by the Indianapolis Colts after 14 years, in large part, because a newer, well-regarded model is available, future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning moved on to the Broncos. Manning’s arrival allowed the Broncos to jettison former starter Tim Tebow, who, despite his unconventional style, led the team to a thrilling playoff victory while igniting a national debate about religion in sports.
If nothing else has given you a sense of the what-have-you-done-for-me-since-last-Sunday NFL, allow the Manning-Tebow switch to drive the league’s cutthroat nature home. Everyone is disposable, even high-profile quarterbacks. To a degree, being a fan requires investing your loyalty in organizations instead of individual players, most of whom will work for several teams over relatively short careers. By developing strong connections with stars, fans who ignore those bonds will almost surely be shattered because owners and players pursue their individual best interests in the business of sports.
On and off the field, the NFL is all about its bottom line, which is why Manning and Tebow were both sacked.
The end of Manning’s spectacularly successful relationship with Indianapolis, however, was startling, both because of the magnitude of his achievements as a Colt and for the abruptness of his departure.
Manning, who turns 36 on Saturday, sat out last season because of a career-threatening neck problem that reportedly required four surgeries to repair. As part of his Colts contract, Manning would have received a $28 million bonus had he remained with the team. Regardless of Manning’s physical condition, Indianapolis would have had reasonable concerns about writing such a fat check simply because of his age.
The Colts also hold the No. 1 overall pick in next month’s draft, and Stanford’s Andrew Luck is widely considered the best quarterback prospect since Manning was developing his skills long ago at the University of Tennessee.
Given all of that, it made sense for Indianapolis owner Jim Irsay to look toward the future.
The NFL is a young man’s game, and the younger the better when players put their bodies through the equivalent of a car crash on every play. Players on the wrong side of 30 understand their time is running out. Each year, the pipeline from colleges provides 20-somethings who seem to defy the laws of human physiology in being bigger, faster and stronger than the preceding group.
In a league in which contracts are not fully guaranteed, players are easily discarded and replacement parts are readily available.
Manning faced the same sobering reality everyone in the NFL does at some point.
Then again, Manning is an NFL original. A four-time MVP and a Super Bowl winner, he was the longtime face of the franchise for Indianapolis and its biggest behind-the-scenes power broker as well. In league history, no one team has been more dependent on a single player, NFL people say.
During an era when quarterbacks have little freedom to alter plans sent in from the sideline, Manning had complete autonomy in play-calling. The Colts’ approach to team-building, their philosophy on offense and even the pace of their practices — Manning had a hand in it all.
Most of all, Manning was loved by Colts fans. Those hearty Midwesterners adopted the native of New Orleans and celebrated every moment on the championship ride he directed.
Tebow’s run in Denver lacked the longevity of what Manning accomplished in Indianapolis, but it was nonetheless compelling in its own way.
Somehow, the run-first quarterback with poor throwing mechanics led a going-nowhere Broncos team to the playoffs. No matter how many air balls and grounders Tebow threw while missing wide-open receivers, he found a way to win, going 7-4 in his 11 starts last season and inspiring “Tebowmania.”
Tebow’s most supportive fans are as much interested in his faith as his football ability. A devout Christian, Tebow has kneeled and prayed during games since before he became a football icon at the University of Florida. Tebow’s knack for winning at the game’s highest level combined with his strong faith proved to be a powerful mixture. It launched him into the national conversation beyond sports.
Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway, who runs the Broncos, prefers more polished passers at the position — or at least someone who doesn’t need a crash course in NFL Quarterbacking 101.
The Broncos could have faced a public relations backlash for shipping out Tebow after he engineered their turnaround, including a postseason victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers. But Manning provides a shield for Elway. If Manning holds up physically, it’s a great move. If not, Elway still took a shot at greatness. That’s what the best executives do.
The Broncos traded Tebow to the New York Jets for two draft picks, and the Jets plan for Tebow to play behind three-year starter Mark Sanchez. As soon as Tebow joined the Jets, jokes began about Sanchez’s health — the joke being that Tebow supposedly has friends in high places.
In Indianapolis, fans will miss Manning, but they’ll still root for Luck to have a lot of it. After “Tebowmania” ended in Denver, “Manningmania II” may just be beginning. The Jets and their supporters know there’s just something about Tebow.
No matter where the biggest names land, fans always return to follow the new guys taking their places. Owners have counted on it for a long time; they haven’t been disappointed yet.
For Jason Reid’s previous columns go to washingtonpost.com/reid.