The images were indelible for Denver fans or anyone watching on TV as Tebowmania swept the nation.
On the sidelines, Tim Tebow was Tebowing after scoring yet another late touchdown. In his box upstairs, John Elway was trying his best to look excited about a quarterback he could barely stand to watch.
It was a shotgun marriage from the beginning, this unlikely pairing of a Hall of Fame passer with a quarterback who never seems comfortable in the pocket. Now they are likely to divorce, because with Peyton Manning coming aboard there’s going to be a different kind of mania sweeping the mile-high city.
For that, Bronco fans can thank the good people running the Indianapolis Colts. Without Manning on the open market, Elway likely would have been forced by popular demand to keep Tebow, just as the Broncos were finally forced to play him last year. Manning gave him an opening, and Elway reacted like the gambling quarterback he once was in landing the kind of quarterback he always wanted.
The move was brilliant, assuming Manning is healthy and remains healthy. That’s a big assumption, but Vegas oddsmakers quickly gave it their stamp of approval, lowering the odds of the Broncos winning the Super Bowl from as high as 50-1 to 10-1.
There are no odds on what happens to Tebow now. That’s too hard to predict, even for the grizzled bookies who thought by now they had seen everything in sports.
Does he remain in Denver as a backup to a quarterback who almost never took a snap off when he was healthy? Hard to imagine, especially because the new offense essentially will be Manning’s offense — no match for Tebow’s skill set. And surely Elway wouldn’t want to be in his box hearing chants of “We want Tebow” once again, should Manning somehow get off to a rocky start in Denver.
But what do you do with a wobbly armed quarterback who never seems to pick it up until the fourth quarter? A quarterback who somehow found ways to win, but whose real attraction is as an attraction who can fill seats?
Nobody’s going to offer a first-round pick for him like the one the Broncos used prior to Elway’s arrival in 2010 to select him in the first place. Nobody’s going to retool their entire offense to take advantage of his running skills when there are still so many questions about his passing skills.
And what owner — other than, maybe, newcomer Shahid Khan in Jacksonville — is going to pay a premium for a Tebowmania craze that might already be over?
None of this, of course, is Tebow’s fault. He did everything asked of him in Denver, taking the Broncos to the playoffs for the first time in six years and even winning a playoff game against a battered Steelers team. He did it with utmost humility and utmost class, deferring credit to his teammates and making them believe they could win.
But the Broncos lost their last three regular season games — and the case could be made they should have lost their last six. They backed into the playoffs, as defensive coordinators figured out ways to take away Tebow’s legs and keep him contained.
Great guy, yes. Great character, sure. Visits orphanages, hospitals, even consoles death row inmates. A few weeks ago he was in Las Vegas where, instead of hitting the clubs like most players, he took center stage at an evangelical church and thousands of people waited for hours for him to speak.
But NFL general managers aren’t looking for players their daughter should marry.
They’re looking for quarterbacks who can take them deep into the playoffs, and Tebow so far hasn’t shown he’s capable of doing that. He’s a running quarterback in a league where running quarterbacks don’t survive long, and an erratic passer in a league where precision passing is about the only way to move the ball on a consistent basis.
Denver fans embraced him because he took a team going nowhere and led them somewhere. With Manning aboard they’re no longer desperate, and, already, Tebowmania seems so yesterday.
They’re moving on with the prettier girl at the dance and so will Tebow’s teammates.
“I wouldn’t say I feel bad for him,” Broncos defensive end Robert Ayers said Monday outside the team’s training complex. “It’s a business. And I’m pretty sure Tim understands that.”
Indeed, the NFL is a business. It’s run by people who are driven to make money and win games. There’s no room for sentimentality about the hired help. The Colts proved that when they sent Manning, the player who revitalized the franchise, packing rather than pay him a $28 million bonus.
As popular as he is, Tebow is just another commodity, another player to fill a position on a depth chart. The Broncos could keep him as a backup because his contract his relatively cheap, but it doesn’t make much sense for a lot of different reasons.
With a four-time NFL MVP aboard, Tebow’s future is elsewhere.
And the future of the Broncos is suddenly a lot brighter.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg