Naylor: Tebow's success created problem for Broncos

Dave Naylor
3/21/2012 5:35:40 PM
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Imagine, if you will, the following scenario.
A football player, let's call him Quarterback X, has an extraordinary college career that includes winning the Heisman Trophy and leading his team to a national championship while playing in the SEC, the toughest NCAA conference there is.

Quarterback X becomes a first-round NFL draft pick, gets his feet wet during his rookie season and then is handed the starting job a third of the way through his second, after his team gets off to a 1-4 start.

Against considerable odds, Quarterback X manages to lead his team to a string of improbable victories, becoming among the NFL's most popular players and generating all kinds of buzz with each victory as his team marches towards the playoffs.

Quarterback X then leads his team to its first playoff win in six seasons - in overtime, no less - over the vaunted Pittsburgh Steelers.

Sounds like more than any team could ask for, right?

Not so fast.

Despite a narrative that makes Hollywood screenwriters jealous, Quarterback X was shipped out of town, never to wear the same uniform again.

And so understandably, with all the attention and all the success Tim Tebow has managed so far during his young career, more than a few people are justifiably asking how it is that his tenure as a Denver Bronco is over.

The answer lies in the paradoxical qualities of the quarterback position which make it the single most influential position in all of sports and also the one most dependent on others for victory.

To much of the general sports-watching public, football games come down to nothing but quarterback play. When a team wins, the quarterback receives all the credit; when it loses, he gets all the blame.

Matchups are often framed as showdowns between quarterbacks, despite the fact that more players participate in a football game than in any other major league sport.

So while a lot of fans never got past the fact that Tim Tebow was a winner last season, clearly the analysis of the Broncos organization - led by Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway who oversees Denver's football operations - went much deeper than that.

And in Tebow, they saw a deeply flawed player whose likelihood of repeating what went on during the 2011 season was extremely low.

Tim Tebow has never been just another quarterback. From his conservative Christian identity to his unconventional playing style, for better or worse, he has always stood out from the crowd.

Those unique qualities may have played to his advantage when the Broncos felt they had nothing to lose last season and were willing to role the dice by playing an unconventional quarterback in an unconventional offence with a team apparently headed nowhere.

If he failed, the Broncos could be done with him once and for all, which may have suited Elway and head coach John Fox just fine since neither was around when Denver drafted him in the first place.

If he succeeded, as unlikely as that seemed, they'd deal with that later.

But Tebow's success in Denver created a problem for the Broncos.

Denver's string of wins made it impossible to dump him – or so it seemed – and yet committing to him for the long-term carried considerable risk since his unique skill set required Denver to build a very specific type of offence to match it.

There was always a sense that Elway never really believed in the magic that unfolded last season, based on his continually guarded compliments regarding Tebow's abilities as a quarterback.

And it seemed as if Elway understood that building a team around Tebow carried tremendous risk because if things didn't pan out, it was going to leave an awful mess behind.

In the unlikely availability of Peyton Manning, the Broncos suddenly had a way out of Tebowmania, a way to escape the phenomenon instead of being boxed-in by it.

Whether Manning can again become the NFL's best quarterback is debatable but, barring another injury, he's certainly capable of being as good or better at age 36 than most quarterbacks in the game today.

And most importantly in Elway's eyes, he'll be better than Tebow was going to be this season, or the next one or the one after that.

On Wednesday, the Broncos traded Tebow, something Elway suggested on Tuesday is motivated partly by his belief that Tebow deserves a chance to compete for a starting job this coming season. The unspoken part of that is that his very presence would be an unwelcome distraction in Denver this season and the Broncos didn't really see him as part of their future.

As Manning and Elway beamed about Denver's prospects for this upcoming season on Tuesday, painted on the wall behind them was the Broncos Pyramid of Success.

Listed at the very top of that pyramid under the Broncos logo were the words "faith" and "patience".

Which, ironically, happen to be the very qualities the Broncos ran short regarding Tim Tebow.

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