Peyton Manning will long be remembered for his many accomplishments on the football field, and, it seems, for a few things off it. Among his many records, statistics, game balls and Super Bowls is a contribution to our society as a whole that I’m afraid will be lost to history unless someone writes it down and tosses it up on the internet. Okay, I’ll do it.
What is this thing that Peyton Manning did for us in the spring of 2012?
He saved us from Tim Tebow.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I like Tim Tebow as a man (wait, that didn’t sound right). If I had a son, I’d want him to be (mostly) just like him. I do have daughters, and I’d be pretty pleased if one of them brought home a guy like Tim to meet the folks.
The last thing I want is to be seen as anti-Tebow, even these many years later. You know how there were Japanese soldiers surrendering years after World War II because they didn’t know the war was over? I have a feeling there are Tim Tebow fans who are similarly unaware that their battle to see Tim Tebow be an NFL quarterback has long ago been decided.
So I’m not that anti-Tebow guy, okay?
Besides, my opinion about Tebow didn’t matter. Only one man’s did, and that was Broncos GM John Elway. He was the one who had to look at a very strange set of data – including his team winning a playoff game – and reconcile it with an eye-test Tebow just didn’t pass.
Allow me to remind you what the climate was like. Tim Tebow was ESPN’s favorite topic. His legions of fans — Broncos fans, Florida Gators fans, and evangelical Christians who may or may not have had any relationship with football before — were convinced that his leadership and spirituality more than made up for any lack of acumen he had in terms of, well, throwing the ball.
The Broncos started the season 1-4 with Kyle Orton under center. Tebow started the sixth game. The Broncos trailed Miami 15-0 with 3 minutes to go, and won 18-15 in OT. After a loss, they won in Oakland. Then they won in Kansas City, with Tebow completing two (2) passes in eight attempts. Very strange football, indeed. Four days after the win in K.C., they played the Jets on a Thursday night. Tebow led a 95-yard drive to win the game, scoring on a 20-yard called run play with less than a minute to go. The Broncos won six straight games, five of which were comebacks, and sat at 8-5.
Meanwhile, the post-game interviews were fascinating. No ego, all credit to God and teammates, and respect to opponents. I mean it when I say I really liked the guy.
Losses to the Patriots and Bills came next, and finally the season ended with a 7-3 loss to the Chiefs at home. The Broncos were 8-8, but they squeezed into the playoffs when the Raiders lost on the last week of the season.
Radio talk shows, TV talk shows, comment sections on the internet. They were all ablaze with opinions about Tim Tebow. The noise grew louder when the Broncos made the playoffs, and reached an absolute crescendo when Tebow launched an 80-yard TD pass to Demetrius Thomas on the first play of overtime to beat the Steelers.
As for what happened next, I’m just going to let ESPN’s Adam Schefter tell you:
On Jan. 8, 2009, in the BCS Championship Game, then-Florida quarterback Tim Tebow wore eye black with the inscription John 3:16, a reference to the Bible passage that says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
On Jan. 8, 2012, three years to the date that he caused millions of football fans to Google the meaning of John 3:16, Tebow played his first NFL playoff game, against the Pittsburgh Steelers. And …
Tebow threw for 316 yards.
Tebow averaged 31.6 yards per completion, the highest single-game postseason completion average in NFL history.
Ben Roethlisberger’s second-quarter interception, which led to a Matt Prater field goal and a 17-6 Broncos lead, came on third-and-16.
The Steelers finished the game with a time of possession of 31 minutes, six seconds.
And at the time Tebow threw the game-winning 80-yard touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas — the NFL’s longest postseason pass in overtime history — CBS’s final quarter-hour overnight ratings were, yes, a 31.6.
John Elway had a big problem. The following week the magic was completely gone, and Tebow completed 9 of 26 passes for 136 yards. Same numbers (1, 3 and 6), different order, not good. The Broncos were shelled by the New England Patriots, 45-10, and Elway faced a stark reality:
Tim Tebow was not going to win a Super Bowl for the Broncos. In fact, it was probably more likely that he was a 4-12 quarterback than a 12-4 quarterback… but what to do about it?
His fans would simply not tolerate his removal as the Broncos’ quarterback. As I mentioned, he had millions of fans who weren’t Elway’s problem, but he had also won over a huge faction of Broncos fans, who had just seen their first home win in the playoffs since 2005.
So what could Elway do? He couldn’t draft a QB to replace Tebow. The poor guy wouldn’t have a chance. A trade, even if he could get a starting QB somehow, led down a similar path.
If only there was a player who was so good, so accomplished, so well-thought of that the “Te-bots” would have to admit to themselves, “Okay, we get it. He’s good.” That player would, of course, have to be available as a free agent.
Meanwhile, 1,100 miles away in Indianapolis, another GM had his own problems. Bill Polian had an aging quarterback who had missed the entire 2011 season after having surgery on his neck. Peyton Manning – Super Bowl champion, record-holder, the man who was credited with changing Indianapolis from a basketball town to a football town – was owed $28 million if he was on the team’s roster on March 8. To make matters more difficult, the Colts had completely collapsed in Manning’s absence, earning the first pick in the draft. Stanford superstar Andrew Luck had announced that he was giving up his senior season to enter the NFL.
So Elway is sitting in Denver wishing for a miracle, and Peyton Manning gets cut by the Colts.
Elway, a one-time Stanford superstar himself and a very smart guy, knew that this was his ticket out of “Tebow-town.” He went after Manning like his team’s future depended on it, which it did. Several other teams “had interest” in Manning, but they didn’t have a Hall-of-Fame, Super Bowl-winning quarterback putting on the full-court press. In the end, he got his man, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The Broncos actually were able to trade Tebow to the Jets, where he played very little and not very well. The Jets cut him when they drafted Geno Smith. Tebow had free agent tryouts with New England and Philadelphia, where he was cut on the last day before the 2015 season started. He is now a college football analyst for ESPN, where he gets considerably less air time than he did in the fall and winter of 2011.
So when you think of Peyton Manning, be sure to remember all of the numbers, awards and championships. But take a moment and say a little non-prayer of thanks for his role in ending the phenomenon we came to know as TebowMania.