Monthly Archives: March 2012

The good, the bad and the ugly of Rockies camp

The Rockies open their season Friday in Houston and their roster is shaping up to be better than many of the experts are predicting.

Yes, I know. I’m always optimistic about the Rocks. Still, there are lots of good signs as spring training winds down. A few not-so-good signs, too, it’s true. So let’s break it down:

The Good

Wilin Rosario. Wow. The 23-year-old Dominican catcher with 56 big league at-bats has been the breakout story of the spring, collecting 18 hits in 39 at-bats through Thursday’s games, including a club-leading three home runs. He hit one rocket blast against San Francisco that one veteran talent scout called “freakish, absolutely freakish.”

He’s batting .462 with an OPS of 1.271. Sure, it’s a small sample, but the question going into camp was whether he was ready for the bigs or needed a year of seasoning at Triple-A, having played at Double-A last season. Barring a last-minute injury, not only will he make the big league club, if he keeps hitting like this he’ll end up sharing the catching duties with veteran Ramon Hernandez.

Juan Nicasio. The feel-good story of the spring, Nicasio has bounced back from the broken C1 vertebra he suffered last Aug. 5 after being hit in the right temple by a line drive off the bat of Washington Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond. In 23.1 innings pitched this spring, he has struck out 21 and walked 5, pitching to an earned-run average of 3.09.

As a power pitcher and a strike-thrower, he will cap a wonderful comeback story by coming north as a member of the starting rotation, probably pitching the final game of the opening three-game series in Houston. His fastball makes him good as he is. If he develops a change-up and breaking ball to go with it, he could be dominant. And because he isn’t afraid to throw strikes, the Rocks believe he’ll pitch deep into games, giving their bullpen a break.

Jorge De La Rosa. Nobody’s talking about him because he won’t be ready for the start of the season, but De La Rosa’s comeback from Tommy John surgery is right on track. The training staff, being conservative, projects a July return, but privately the Rocks believe he could be back by early June.

That changes the dynamic around the fifth starter question that has dominated camp. Whoever it is, that fifth starter might need to make only nine or ten starts before De La Rosa is ready to take his place. He would give the Rocks two power lefties, something very few big league clubs can boast.

Drew Pomeranz. Don’t be alarmed if the prize from the Ubaldo Jimenez trade gets skipped the first time around the Rockies rotation. After pitching just 101 innings last season, all but 11 of them in the minors, the 23-year-old, 6-foot-5 power lefty will be brought along carefully. The Rocks don’t want too dramatic a rise in his innings count for fear of the long-term effects. Because of the off day following their April 9 home opener, the Rocks can go with four starters until April 15, a Sunday afternoon home game against the Diamondbacks. If everything goes as planned — and that’s never a sure thing a week away from the opener — get your tickets to that one. This guy is going to be fun to watch develop.

Pomeranz has shown a nasty side this spring that augurs well for his chances to become a dominant big league starter. One snapshot: The other day, against the Angels, Brandon Wood was struggling at second base and allowed two base runners to reach that probably should have been outs (spring training being spring training, both were ruled hits). Pomeranz responded by striking out Howard Kendrick, shattering Albert Pujols’ bat on a ground out to third, popping up Torii Hunter on a 2-2 pitch and staring him down as he walked off the mound. When was the last time the Rocks had a pitcher like that? In 11 spring training innings, his ERA is 0.82.

Jamie Moyer. Who doesn’t love this story? A 49-year-old coming off elbow surgery is now very likely to make the Rockies’ starting rotation coming out of camp, barring the physical setbacks that a 49-year-old can always suffer. In part, this is because the other candidates — Guillermo Moscoso and Tyler Chatwood — have been underwhelming. But it’s also because Moyer has been good — a 2.77 ERA and 11 hits surrendered in 13 innings.

It’s also because, sandwiched between the power arms of Nicasio and Jeremy Guthrie, Moyer can provide an interesting change of pace. He tops out at 80 miles per hour these days, with his breaking and off-speed stuff sometimes not reaching 70. And because of De La Rosa’s expected return, the Rocks wouldn’t be looking at him for 30 starts; more like half that many. Moyer’s soft stuff at Coors Field does make you wince a little in anticipation — he’s been rocked in two of his three starts there — but the Rocks have other options if he blows up. And if he can get credit for a win somewhere along the way, he’ll be the oldest man to do it.

Tyler Colvin. The former first-round draft pick by the Cubs became part of an exchange of disappointments over the winter when the Rocks acquired him in exchange for Ian Stewart. Trying to show off power he doesn’t have, he batted .150 a year ago. As soon as the Rocks acquired him, they went to work overhauling his swing. The results so far: a .365 batting average and .948 OPS with 12 RBIs in 52 at-bats. With Charlie Blackmon out with turf toe, Colvin has locked up the fourth outfielder job and provides an insurance policy in center field.

Michael Cuddyer. The veteran outfielder obtained from the Twins to provide run production and maturity has shown up so far as everything the Rocks were looking for, and a bit more. Two recent snapshots: Against the Giants, Mike Fontenot failed to clear the second base bag turning a double play and Cuddyer blew him up sliding in. Against the Angels, he hit a routine three-hop ground ball to short and turned it into a bang-bang play at first by busting it down the line.

In fact, he and Colvin have impressed enough that the Rocks now believe they can keep 38-year-old Todd Helton fresh at first by sprinkling in a liberal dose of lineups with Cuddyer at first and Colvin in right.

The Bad

Dexter Fowler. Remember the guy from the first half of last year? He’s back. Fowler was batting .118 in 51 at-bats through Thursday’s games, including sixteen strikeouts, two walks and one stolen base. Not exactly leadoff man numbers. So 36-year-old Marco Scutaro — batting all of .176 himself this spring — is probably the club’s leadoff man coming north.

This is a make-or-break year for Fowler with the Rockies. If he can hit his career average of .262, his defensive excellence in center field makes him worth running out there every day. But his long swing seems to make him susceptible to these long offensive funks. If his spring at the plate spills over into the regular season, the Rocks won’t hesitate to deploy Colvin in center.

Jhoulys Chacin. The numbers aren’t terrible, but the Rocks were looking for the 24-year-old Venezuelan right-hander to take another step forward this year and they haven’t seen it yet. He arrived at camp with biceps soreness and swiftly developed a blister on the index finger of his pitching hand. Rockies fans remember a couple of other pitchers who arrived at camp last year with what seemed like minor issues — Ubaldo Jimenez and Aaron Cook — and although the initial problems went away, they were a sign of things to come.

Chacin’s main problem is not throwing enough strikes, and that hasn’t improved so far this spring. Still, he has a lot of talent and the Rocks aren’t relying on him to anchor the starting staff, as they did last year after the Jimenez trade. For now, he’s penciled in to throw the home opener, four games in.

Rafael Betancourt. The 36-year-old closer — he’ll turn 37 at the end of April — hasn’t been effective this spring, but it’s a very small sample size and nobody seems concerned. With Matt Belisle and Rex Brothers poised to set up, the Rocks believe they’ll be OK in any event, but they are counting on Betancourt to return to form.

The Ugly

Casey Blake. It was sad to see the widely-admired veteran reach an age (38) that prevented him from ever really competing for the third base job, but it’s not as if it was unexpected. The Rocks signed him to a non-guaranteed contract for just that reason. He couldn’t get on the field for a while, and when he did he showed virtually no range at third. So he was released, leaving Chris Nelson and Jordan Pacheco to share the third base duties until Nolan Arenado, who turns 21 in April and will start at Double-A Tulsa, is ready.

Eric Young Jr. As usual, Young has been a disruptive dynamo offensively, batting .310 with six steals. “He’s like an automatic double,” says one observer. Unfortunately, the Rocks can’t find a place to play him in the field where his defense isn’t cringe-worthy. In the outfield, where he’s gotten most of his time, he still takes bad routes to balls that turn outs into hits. The Rocks love his energy and work ethic, but they can’t figure out what to do with him. He’s out of options and unless the club wants to come north with a short pitching staff, it will have to look for a deal or try to get him through waivers.

The Roster

To the extent anything can be said to be a lock a week before the regular season begins, the locks for the bullpen look to be Betancourt, Belisle, Brothers, Esmil Rogers and Josh Outman. If we assume the Opening Day starting staff consists of Guthrie, Nicasio, Chacin, Pomeranz and Moyer (with Moyer probably pitching the second game of the season to slot him between the hard-throwing Guthrie and Nicasio), that leaves six guys competing for two remaining spots: Moscoso, Chatwood, Alex White, Edgmer Escalona, Matt Reynolds and Josh Roenicke. All have options except for Roenicke.

Rockies brass is split on whether White is best suited to start or relieve in the long run, so they might bring him north as a member of the bullpen to check him out in that role. In that case, Moscoso and Chatwood would probably be sent down to Triple A Colorado Springs to continue starting and the last bullpen spot would likely go to Escalona or Reynolds.

The infielders seem likely to be a platoon of Nelson and Pacheco at third, Troy Tulowitzki at short, Scutaro at second and Todd Helton and Jason Giambi at first. Jonathan Herrera has had an excellent spring and seems likely to make it as a utility man. He and Nelson might seem redundant, but the Rocks are not high on Nelson’s defense anywhere but third, so Herrera would be the primary backup for both Scutaro and Tulowitzki.

The outfield is set with Carlos Gonzalez, Fowler, Colvin and Cuddyer.

The catchers are Hernandez, Rosario and Pacheco in a pinch.

That’s 12 pitchers, six infielders, four outfielders, two catchers and one infielder/catcher for a total of 25. Things could change in the next week, of course, but from here, that looks like a roster that could surprise, particularly if the young members of the starting staff look as good when the games begin to count as they have in spring training. This team should hit, and it should play pretty good defense. As usual, the Rocks’ fortunes should rise or fall with the pitching.

Almost time to play ball.


The money stat about Peyton Manning and John Fox

It was sort of an accident, really. The Broncos’ media relations staff came up with the statistic about Peyton Manning and John Fox that knocks your socks off as part of routine research before Manning visited Dove Valley a little less than two weeks ago.

It was part of a general briefing email the staff sent to Fox and John Elway two weeks ago today, the day the Colts released Manning. But this particular stat was also highlighted in a chance hallway meeting at Dove Valley between Fox and media relations director Patrick Smyth.

As soon as Fox heard it, he knew he had to make it part of his sales pitch to the four-time NFL most valuable player.

As Sports Illustrated’s Peter King reported in a fine blow-by-blow account of the courtship, Fox had requested certain information specifically, including some facts about the weather in Denver that would debunk its false reputation back east as a snowbound winter wonderland. That request, along with an Excel spreadsheet, produced the fact that the average starting temperature in 519 Broncos home games over the years has been 60.1 degrees.

Indeed, while they were at it, the Broncos broke down the average starting temperature for games in Kansas City, Oakland and San Diego — the Broncos’ AFC West rivals — and found it came to 61 degrees. Averaging the temperatures in Kansas City and San Diego in December may seem silly, but the exercise allowed the Broncos to tell Manning that the average starting temperature at the venues of 11 of his 16 games each season is in the 60s.

But the stat that made Manning and the Broncos look like a match made in heaven was not specifically requested. Rather, it grew out of earlier research Smyth’s staff had done when Fox was first hired almost fifteen months ago — the veteran coach’s record when his teams achieve certain markers, such as plus one in turnovers, plus two in turnovers; when they score 22 points, when they score 24, when they score 26, and so on. It’s the sort of standard stuff that appears in a team’s game notes throughout the season.

The first time I heard the money stat was six days after it made that internal Dove Valley memo, when Fox came on the Dave Logan Show following the press conference introducing Manning as the Broncos’ new quarterback on March 20.

Fox has long had a reputation as a conservative, defensive-minded head coach, a guy who likes to run the ball and whose teams play a lot of low-scoring games. But when I discussed that reputation with him in the middle of last season, he said it was a matter of circumstance, not conviction. And when you look at his teams, it’s true that he’s never had a quarterback likely to gain admission to the Pro Football Hall of Fame without a ticket.

“I’ve never had that guy,” he told me then. So, following the Manning press conference, I asked him how different the Broncos’ offense was likely to look now that he finally has a Canton-bound quarterback.

“You do the best you can with what you got,” he replied. “Unfortunately, that’s been a little bit more run-oriented for me in my ten-year head coaching career. Balance is the thing that’s tough to defend, being a defensive coach most of my career. Getting a guy like Peyton, a guy that’s got those experiences and getting you into runs or passes based on what the defense is doing, you definitely become more two-dimensional and you get that balance.”

That’s when he unloaded the stat:

“As I mentioned to Peyton in the process, he’s averaged 26 points a game over his fourteen-year career in Indy, and in my ten-year coaching career when we’ve had 26 points or more, we’re 39-3. So hopefully that will be more the ratio moving forward.”

Actually, the count is 38-3, but let’s not quibble. The bottom line is this: Over the course of his career, when Fox’s teams score 26 points or more, they win more than 90 percent of the time.

Of course, the stat also demonstrates just how rare that’s been for Fox. In ten seasons, he’s coached 160 regular-season games and ten playoff games, so his teams have scored 26 points or more less than 25 percent of the time. Last season, for example, the Broncos scored 26 points or more only three times — and went 3-0 in those games.

What turns it into a money stat for the marriage of Manning and the Broncos is that 26 is Manning’s career average. In 2010, the last season he played for the Colts, his team scored 26 or more ten times.

As King points out, the key factor in Manning’s decision to sign with the Broncos was his comfort level with the people, Elway and Fox in particular, the city and the organization. But that stat is an intriguing part of the promise of this marriage because what it says is this:

If Manning can be approximately the player he’s been throughout his career, and if Fox can be approximately the coach he’s been throughout his career, it could be an almost unbeatable combination.


Tiger sets his sights on Augusta

Luke Donald is:

a) the governor of a midwestern state who declined to run for president;

b) Donald Trump’s long-lost half-brother;

c) the guy who played Hawkeye in the movie version of M*A*S*H;

d) the top-ranked professional golfer in the world.

No personal offense intended to the apparently nice, 34-year-old Englishman, but the actual answer is:

e) the reason golf so desperately needs Tiger Woods to return to contention.

Donald is the No. 1 golfer in the world, according to the rankings, and if you could pick him out of a lineup give yourself a golf clap.

Also in the top ten are Lee Westwood, Martin Kaymer, Steve Stricker, Charl Schwartzel, Justin Rose, Webb Simpson and Adam Scott. It is not just nostalgia that has the sport’s older hands pointing out that this list does not have quite the ring of Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Tom Watson and Lee Trevino, the challengers to Jack Nicklaus’ supremacy in golf’s golden competitive age.

Today, the compelling figures are Woods and Phil Mickelson, with young Rory McIlroy perhaps poised to join them.

So Woods’ first PGA tour win in two and a half years, Sunday at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Orlando, was not just good news for Tiger, who can resume his pursuit of Nicklaus’ record for most major championships at the Masters the weekend after next. It is good news for the Masters and the sport itself, which can expect the escalating interest and television ratings that Tiger used to generate as he takes on a field of challengers that is largely anonymous to the outside world.

Woods answered questions for nearly fifteen minutes at a press conference following his win at Bay Hill, but never once did he let down his guard. If you thought the Shakespearean tale that intervened between his last two tour victories would change his public persona, think again.

There was one moment in particular that seemed ripe for an endearing bit of self-deprecating humor. Someone asked him to contrast Sunday’s victory to his last tour win, at the BMW Championship in September 2009. That victory came a few weeks before he ran his car into a fire hydrant, launching a stunning fall from grace that saw his marriage dissolve and preceded a series of injuries that suspended his quest to break all of golf’s most important records.

He could have flashed that rare and famous smile and said the BMW was so long ago it was hard to remember. He didn’t, of course. Tiger doesn’t do self-deprecation.

“I guess they’re all slightly different,” he said without the hint of a smile. “I’ve had the lead before and I’ve won. The goal today with obviously the wind conditions as they were, coming out of the west, this is the toughest wind we’ve got. And I just felt that anything under par was going to be a very good score today. That was my goal, my mindset today, and after the first hole my lead went from one to three. So that certainly changes things. So now let’s just try to make a lot of pars and see what happens. Let’s make a stray birdie here and there.”

It is all about the golf for Tiger, and always has been. When he was asked whether the most difficult hurdles over those 924 winless days were mental or physical, the closest any of golf’s scribes came to referencing the dissolution of his marriage, he said it wasn’t even close.

“Oh, it’s by far the injuries, because you can’t practice,” he said. “I haven’t been able to put in the time. You can’t make a swing change and make all the adaptations we need to make unless I can practice and I haven’t been able to do that. I was sidelined most of last year — it was tough. Finally started showing signs toward the end of the year in Australia, and moving forward.”

So competitive is Woods, and so unwilling to accept even the golf world’s definition of the longest drought of his career, that he refused to acknowledge Bay Hill as his first win since everything came crashing down. Somebody asked him what he would say to those who predicted he would never win again.

“Well, it’s my second win,” Woods said, referring to the Chevron World Challenge, a charity offseason tournament he and his foundation host in Thousand Oaks, Calif.

“Officially,” replied his questioner, knowing, as Woods does, that the charity event does not count as a tour win.

“I got official world ranking points, didn’t I?” countered Woods, who fell as low as No. 58 in those rankings last fall, but has now climbed back to No. 6.

He regarded his interrogator in triumph. “You can’t win this one, can you?” he said, a wide smile creasing his face.

When questioners suggested he confirm their story lines that he needed a win, Woods rejected the narrative.

“As far as needing to win, no, you don’t need to win,” he said. “You want to win. I think that’s a misperception I think people get into. I know I have a desire to win and that’s why I enter these events, is to do that. And ultimately, this week was one of my weeks.”

Someone else suggested he’d like the Masters to start immediately, as if giddiness over Sunday’s win might be an asset. Woods shook off yet another story line.

“I still need some work,” he said. “And it’s going to be good to get a week off and work on a few things. I enjoyed the progression we made this week. Each day there was a little bit of fine tuning here and there and we were able to make those adjustments, which was good. And especially with the conditions getting more difficult all weekend, I was able to hit some really good shots the last two days. That’s a very good sign going into Augusta.”

A very good sign. Consider the confidence Woods exuded when asked toname his best shot of Sunday’s final round:

“I hit a lot of good ones today. Not one shot stood out because I hit, I thought, a boatload of good ones. I had really good control of my ball all day. I was shaping it both ways, changing my (trajectory), and it felt so comfortable. I can’t pick out one shot, sorry.”

At 36, Woods appears poised to resume his pursuit of Nicklaus on all fronts. His 72 tour wins are just one back of the Golden Bear and ten behind Sam Snead, the all-time leader. He could tie Nicklaus with a win at the Masters, but that’s not the record he’s looking for.

“Yeah, well, that’s nice, but I’m looking forward to more the green jacket part of it than tying Jack in that regard,” Woods said. “Jack’s had an amazing career and he’s won a bunch of tournaments, but also he’s won more majors than anybody else either. So I’m looking forward to my opporunities this year to . . . there’s four of them this year, and hopefully I can peak at the right time for all four of them.”

Four, of course, is Woods’ deficit to Nicklaus in majors — 18-14 — and if it sounds like he’s thinking a grand slam to tie is possible, well, he probably is. That’s Tiger.

“Good to see him back winning tournaments again,” said Graeme McDowell, the runner-up Sunday. “I think he really kind of nailed home his comeback.”

“It’s a big moment in golf and it sure sets the scene for Augusta,” said analyst Johnny Miller. “Watch out, boys on the PGA tour, Tiger is back.”


Tebowmania changes time zones

Tebowmania in Colorado was as much a cultural phenomenon as a sports story, which is why limiting it to sports makes it almost impossible to understand.

Take the Broncos’ trade of Tebow to the New York Jets, finally consummated last night after a day of dickering over a $5 million payback provision in Tebow’s contract.

The Broncos traded three draft picks — one each from the second, third and fourth rounds — to move up into the first round in 2010 to draft Tebow with the 25th pick. In the 23 months he was a Bronco, Tebow became a national phenomenon, topped all NFL players in jersey sales for a while, won more games than he lost and led his team to an unexpected playoff berth and a more unexpected playoff win.

Yet, after all that, his value in the NFL marketplace depreciated substantially. John Elway dealt Tebow and a seventh-round draft pick to the Jets and for a fourth-round pick and a sixth. If Tebow’s name were not attached to it, that would be a minor trade on the books of both teams.

Already reviled by Tebow’s most ardent admirers, Elway can now expect criticism for not getting enough in exchange for him, but the consensus among personnel executives around the league over the past two weeks was that Tebow would fetch either a third-round pick or a fourth straight up. So a fourth and a jump from a seventh to a sixth was basically the market price.

But why was that the market price? Why wasn’t a quarterback who pulled off last season’s serial miracles more valuable than that?

Three reasons:

1. The consensus within the league, right or wrong, is that Tebow’s results with the Broncos last year were a fluke, the product of a gimmick offense no one was prepared to defend. The most important stat to NFL club officials is not the record (Tebow was 8-5 including playoffs) or even the completion percentage (46.5 percent last season), although they do cite the latter number with regularity, suggesting it is so low that even dramatic improvement will yield only a mediocre result in a league in which the top four passers last season had completion percentages of 68, 71, 65 and 66.

The most important stat to many league execs is that Tebow won seven of his first eight starts and lost four of his last five. The consensus is that defenses, with the exception of the stubborn Steelers, figured out how to play him — less aggression yielded better results — and would have refined the approach this season.

2. The offense the Broncos built for Tebow required him to be part quarterback, part running back. Taking that many hits, it’s only a matter of time until he’s injured, league executives believe, at which point they would have to revert to a conventional NFL offense or commit totally to an option offense by signing more than one quarterback who can run it. The injuries Tebow suffered in the playoffs against New England — he would not have been able to play in the AFC championship game had the Broncos won — only served as confirmation of this view.

3. Tebow brings with him a legion of followers who believe all of the foregoing is pure hogwash. Winning is what Tebow does, they insist. The end-of-game miracles are a bonus. At the least, those in the NFL who can’t see this are blind. At the most, they might be anti-Christian, turned off by Tebow’s evangelical zeal. As a result, any perceived slight of Tebow becomes a public controversy. A significant number of league executives simply don’t want that headache.

That last part, not to mention celestial explanations of the miracle finishes by Tebow’s more zealous followers, moves the story into religious and cultural areas that perplex and frustrate NFL officials, many of whom spend so much time in their bunkers they couldn’t tell you who’s running for president, let alone who’s trending on Facebook or Twitter. If Elway, a Denver icon, can be drawn and quartered for his treatment of Tebow, what’s the upside of a mere mortal front office type wading into this pond? Not a single team expressed interest in acquiring Tebow to be its starting quarterback.

Still, as a sports story, the dispute cries out for resolution, which is why following Tebow’s career from a distance will remain interesting. The Jets just extended the contract of their starting quarterback, Mark Sanchez, to a five-year deal that includes $20.5 million of guaranteed money. Tebow was acquired to be his backup and to operate variations on the wildcat offense as a change of pace.

Jets coach Rex Ryan and offensive coordinator Tony Sparano have both run the wildcat with some success, Ryan with Brad Smith in New York and Sparano with Ronnie Brown in Miami. The fact that Tebow beat both of them last season (Sparano was coaching the Dolphins then) didn’t hurt.

Why the Jacksonville Jaguars didn’t trump the Jets’ offer remains something of a mystery. Tebow was a natural for the Jags. He played his high school football in Jacksonville and is immensely popular there. The Jags went 5-11 last season and got poor quarterback play from rookie Blaine Gabbert, the tenth overall pick of the 2011 draft. They went out and signed a veteran free agent, Chad Henne, as insurance, but he wasn’t much better in four seasons with Miami. The Jags could also use somebody to help them sell tickets so they don’t have to put a tarpaulin over thousands of seats in the upper deck of their stadium.

Evidently, the Jaguars’ new owner, Shad Kahn, was interested but his football people were not, including general manager Gene Smith, who drafted Gabbert. Smith wasn’t ready to give up on Gabbert after one year and had the same reservations about Tebow that other executives do (see above). When the trade to the Jets was finally completed, Kahn issued this statement:

“Earlier this week, I asked Gene Smith and his staff to explore the potential of acquiring Tim Tebow. I think we have a duty to consider all avenues of improving the Jaguars on and off the field, especially given the unique circumstances involving the player.

“I appreciate the high level of due diligence Gene and his staff dedicated to this matter, even as late as (Wednesday) evening, and I am very satisfied with the outcome. Our commitment to developing Blaine Gabbert was, and still is, central to our goal of returning the Jaguars to elite status in the NFL. We’re looking ahead with zero regrets.”

In the end, the Jags and the Jets made very similar offers. The Jags offered a fourth-round pick and $3 million of the $5 million the Broncos had advanced Tebow on his salaries for 2012, 2013 and 2014. The Jets offered the fourth and sixth, getting a seventh in exchange for the sixth, and $2.53 million. Because the Jags draft earlier in each round than the Jets, the draft pick offers were almost identical according to the draft value chart.

Although it was widely assumed Tebow wanted to return to Florida, site of his glorious high school and college careers, New York offers more endorsement opportunities and a much larger platform for his evangelism. In any case, Tebow did not sound unhappy about his landing spot.

“I wanted to play for Coach Ryan ever since I saw ‘Hard Knocks,’ ” Tebow said with his customary laugh. “He just seemed like a coach who loves football and is passionate about the game of football. He’s definitely a players’ coach. I just love that about him.”

Not everyone was so sanguine about Tebow’s move. Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie lobbied against the deal Tuesday on Twitter.

“We don’t need Tebow,” Cromartie wrote. “We sell out every home game. Let him go to Jacksonville, Tampa or Miami.”

Legendary former Jets quarterback Joe Namath also weighed in against it, saying, “It stinks.” And Drew Stanton, signed to back up Sanchez just a week earlier, reacted to the deal by asking for his release.

For Elway and the Broncos, such headaches are now in the rearview mirror. The Broncos return to a conventional quarterback setup with Peyton Manning the undisputed starter and a traditional backup to be signed. Former Colorado State quarterback Caleb Hanie is one candidate. Stanton might even be a candidate if he gets his wish to be released by the Jets.

And the Broncos moved immediately to shore up the receiving corps for Manning, a career 65 percent passer, signing Andre Caldwell to join Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker. Caldwell said the Manning signingplayed a major role in his decision to join the Broncos.

Leading a regime that took over the front office nine months after Josh McDaniels drafted Tebow, Elway found himself caught in a crossfire from the beginning, targeted by Tebowmaniacs who accused him of betrayal, envy and some of the other deadly sins. Passionate as quarterback controversies often are, Tebowmania took it to a whole new level.

At first, pursuing an agenda of transparency following the opaque, Bill Belichick-inspired McDaniels era, Elway acknowledged his reservations about Tebow as a passer. As he came under attack for failing to support the young quarterback sufficiently, he dialed back the openness, praising Tebow’s character and competitive fire, while still noting almost parenthetically that he needed to improve as a pocket passer.

Tebow’s fan base should not have been surprised. When he was hired to run the front office, Elway made it clear his sole goal was to win a Super Bowl and he believed Super Bowls today are won by great pocket passers. As proof, he cited the last nine Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks: Tom Brady (2), Eli Manning (2), Ben Roethlisberger (2), Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers.

John Fox’s coaching staff overhauled the Broncos offense into a run-heavy, read-option collegiate scheme to suit Tebow’s skill set, and it got the Broncos to the playoffs in a mediocre division. But that relative success, combined with Tebow’s following, left Elway presiding over a team running an offense he didn’t believe in.

So Manning’s sudden free agency was manna from heaven. A four-time most valuable player and certain Hall of Famer, Manning was not only the elite passer Elway sought, he provided unassailable cover to get out from under Tebowmania.

Well, not entirely unassailable. A significant minority opinion remains among Broncos fans that Tebow was a better choice than Manning to be the team’s starting quarterback. This baffles people in the game — Elway said any logical analysis would conclude pursuing Manning was the right move — and it reinforces their perception that Tebowmania is beyond the reach of logic.

Tebow’s legion of followers, of course, have their own logic. Tebow is 24, Manning is 36. Tebow is healthy, Manning is coming off multiple neck surgeries and a one-year layoff. They compare Tebow’s stats as a first-year starter to Elway’s rookie stats in 1983 and Manning’s rookie stats in 1998 and conclude Tebow could turn out to be the better player.

The dispute is interminable. It can only be resolved by giving Tebow an extended opportunity to be a starting quarterback in the league and seeing what he does with it. Jacksonville would have provided a better opportunity for that than New York, although, if Sanchez plays this season the way he played last season, Jets fans could be calling for Tebow a month in.

Elway will absorb the departing shots from the Tebow faithful. He has his passer and Tebowmania is now somebody else’s problem. Around the NFL, Elway is seen as having had a masterful week.

“Elway inherited Tebow and in essence dealt TT and a 7th-round pick for Manning (on a great contract), plus a 4th and a 6th and $2.53M,” tweeted Jason LaCanfora of the NFL Network. “Wow.”


A spectacular win for Elway the exec

John Elway’s pursuit of Peyton Manning was always a high risk/high reward proposition. If Manning had decided to go elsewhere, the Broncos would have had few veteran quarterback options left and Elway would have taken even more heat than he already has for potentially alienating Tim Tebow.

Instead, Elway has earned a spectacular victory, acquiring for Denver the most accomplished free agent in NFL history and putting the Broncos back into the championship conversation for the first time since he retired as a player.

The Broncos had no official comment pending negotiation of a contract, but a club source confirmed that Manning notified the team this morning that he wants to be a Bronco. Assuming no snags working out the details of a five-year, $95 million deal, the parameters of which have already been discussed, the Broncos hope to introduce the four-time most valuable player at a press conference Tuesday.

As Broncos fans debated the merits of Elway’s long-distance courtship, the Broncos’ executive vice president of football operations never wavered. At various times, speculation favored San Francisco, deemed the closest to Super Bowl contention following its appearance in last season’s NFC championship game, and Tennessee, where Manning and his wife, Ashley, went to college.

In fact, one day before ESPN broke the news of Manning’s decision, CBS analyst and former Broncos tight end Shannon Sharpe posted this on Twitter: “I believe Titans have won.” Sharpe indicated he had gotten the tip from a league source.

“I was hoping we would win out,” Titans owner Bud Adams told The Tennessean. “I thought we’d be ahead of Denver. I thought he’d want to stay in Tennessee.”

Throughout the Manning pursuit, Broncos fans wondered what would happen if Manning went elsewhere. The club’s other options among veteran quarterbacks were quickly disappearing from the free agent market. Matt Flynn, Jason Campbell, Kyle Orton, Brady Quinn, Josh McCown, Chad Henne, Rex Grossman and a host of even lesser lights had already found seats in the NFL’s off-season game of musical chairs.

Fans also worried about the effect on Tebow, the incumbent starter with whom the Broncos had no contact during the Manning courtship, waiting to see how it turned out. Now, according to ESPN, the club will look to trade Tebow. This process could be almost as interesting as the Manning pursuit itself.

Tebow is even more popular in Florida, where he’s from, than he is in Denver, so the early speculation will focus on Jacksonville and Miami, the two Florida teams without stable quarterback situations (Tampa Bay seems settled with Josh Freeman).

The Jaguars recently signed Henne to join Blaine Gabbert, their first-round draft pick (tenth overall) just 11 months ago. The Dolphins pursued both Manning and Flynn in free agency, to no avail. They hosted 49ers starter Alex Smith over the weekend, hoping to grab him if San Francisco won the Manning sweepstakes. Now the Niners can be expected to get serious about re-signing Smith.

So Miami might indeed be an option for Tebow. The Broncos and Dolphins tried to make a deal for another quarterback — Orton — last summer, but that fell apart when Orton and the Dolphins couldn’t agree on a new contract. Tebow signed a five-year deal after the Broncos drafted him in 2010, so that should be less of an issue in trade talks, although his representatives might well seek an upgrade on the $1.9 million salary he is due in 2012, well below market for an NFL starter.

Just how good Manning will make the Broncos in his first year in Denver is unknown, of course. They face a brutal first-place schedule this season after winning the AFC West on a tie-breaker following an 8-8 season.

Whether the Broncos will add any of his former teammates in Indianapolis is also unknown. Center Jeff Saturday and tight end Dallas Clark would appear to be the most likely possibilities if they do, but the Broncos have promising young players at both spots — J.D. Walton at center and Julius Thomas at tight end.

Strangely, Manning’s favorite target, wideout Reggie Wayne, re-signed with the rebuilding Colts rather than wait to see where the other half of their partnership ended up. He would be a natural to add to the Broncos’ young wide receiver corps — Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker — if he hadn’t. As it is, the Broncos might seek another veteran to replace Eddie Royal, who agreed to terms with the Chargers.

Getting Manning removes only one of the risks in courting him. He still must prove he’s back to being as durable as he was before the neck injury that kept him out all last season and required multiple surgeries to repair. And he must prove he can be as effective at 36, post-surgery, post-layoff, as he was before.

But what Elway has accomplished already should not be understated. With neither the familiarity of Tennessee nor the 13-3 record of San Francisco, Elway sold Manning on Denver in a way that only he could — one Hall of Fame quarterback to another. In the process, he won for the Broncos what Tom Jackson, the ESPN analyst and former Broncos linebacker, called “possibly the biggest free agent pickup in the history of football.”

The only outcome that will truly gratify either Elway or Manning is a Super Bowl championship in the relatively short window they will have together. As soon as the contract is signed, they’ll be getting to work on that.


Brandon Stokley knows what the Broncos will see from Peyton Manning

John Elway, John Fox, Brian Xanders, Mike McCoy and Adam Gase are in the Broncos party that flew to Raleigh, N.C., this morning to watch Peyton Manning throw at an indoor facility at Duke University.

What are they likely to see?

Brandon Stokley knows. The former Broncos receiver, who played with Manning for four seasons in Indianapolis from 2003-06, including a 68-catch, 1,077-yard receiving season in 2004, worked out with Manning at Duke two weeks ago and again near his home south of Denver when Manning visited the Broncos last weekend.

So how did he look?

“When we got to Duke, he had thrown a couple days prior than we got there and they had some film on it,” Stokley said Wednesday on the Dave Logan Show. “I didn’t want to watch any of the film. I wanted to kind of go in there with an open mind and see for myself, first hand, what I thought of how he was looking.

“I was really impressed and really surprised at how good he looked. I had talked to him a few times before that and I hadn’t asked him how he was throwing and how he felt, really. So when I got there and I saw him throwing, I was impressed, I really was. He could make all the throws — on the run, in the pocket, comebacks, posts, any throw that a quarterback needs to make, he could make.

“What even impressed me more was he did it for five straight days. And he was the only quarterback there. If you know Peyton, he throws a lot. So he threw a lot of footballs during those five days.”

Following the Duke throwing sessions, Manning returned to Indianapolis for the emotional press conference of March 7 where the Colts announced they were releasing him after 14 seasons. Indianapolis finished a league-worst 2-14 in a 2011 NFL camapign Manning missed due to multiple neck surgeries. As a result, the Colts are starting over, beginning with the first pick in the April draft. Manning was just one of a number of veterans Indianapolis released.

Two days after that press conference, Manning flew to Denver on Broncos owner Pat Bowlen’s private plane and met with Elway and Fox for much of the day and evening Friday in the first visit of a free agency tour that would end up including meetings with the Arizona Cardinals, Miami Dolphins and Tennessee Titans as well.

After a dinner Friday evening with Elway and Fox, Manning spent the night at Stokley’s home in the Castle Rock area. Saturday morning, a week after the Duke sessions, he and Stokley went out to throw a football around, like two regular guys out for a little weekend workout. Stokley picks up the story from there.

“He slept at the house on Friday night and we woke up Saturday morning and he was worn out. But he said maybe we can go throw. I had scouted a field out and had it all ready. He decided he wanted to throw so we were going to the field and of course there was a lacrosse game going on. So we had to backtrack and we ended up throwing in my driveway for a little bit.

“Then my wife came up with a little field in the neighborhood. So we went to that field and he looked even better to me then than he did a week prior. I think the rest of three or four days that he had off definitely helped him.”

I asked Stokley if the neighborhood park was big enough to accommodate NFL pass patterns.

“It’s probably about 50 yards by 40, or 50 by 50, so any NFL throw you’ve got to make you could make on the field,” he replied.

What if any difference did he see between the Manning he played with from 2003-06 and the Manning he worked out with in Raleigh and Denver this month?

“I didn’t see any, I really didn’t,” Stokley said. “That’s what I wanted to see. He looked like the same guy to me when I played with him and that I saw two or three years ago on TV. He just throws a nice, catchable ball, very accurate. So, to me, if you didn’t know, you would have never thought he would have had the surgeries that he’s had. I think he could step in and play a game right now.”

That’s the money quote from Stokley’s throwing sessions with his old teammate: I think he could step in and play a game right now.

Stokley never asked Manning where he might play next, but he did get a sense of what he was looking for.

“I think he’s just trying to find the right fit and the right chemistry with the coaching staff and the philosophies and make sure they’re kind of on the same page,” he said. “I think that’s really high on his list.

“Last weekend, I think he was just trying to get himself wrapped up into what this whole free agency process was going to be. And I think that was one of the main reasons why he came to Denver first, was because of his relationship with Elway and with Fox. He knew he could come here and be himself and just kind of see what the whole process was going to be like.

“I think moving forward he’s kind of taking his time, (although) he’s been rushed around. I don’t know where his head’s at as far as what team he’s going to pick, but I know that he’s going to do his due diligence and whatever team he finds, he’s going to make it a lot better and a lot more competitive right away.”

It didn’t hurt the Broncos’ chances that it was sunny with temperatures in the 60s on the March weekend that Manning visited.

“I pointed that out to him,” Stokley said. “When we were throwing Saturday morning, I said, ‘Look at this day. It doesn’t get any better than this.’ So he definitely took notice.”

In fact, Stokley did what he could to play the role of Colorado ambassador.

“I would love to see him play here,” he said. “Obviously, I’m biased. I’d get to watch it first hand. I think the city, the state would get to see something special if he came to Denver. So I’m definitely putting my two cents in and hoping that he comes to Denver.”

The fact that top Broncos officials flew across the country today to watch Manning throw demonstrates that Denver is still very much in the hunt. And based on Stokley’s testimony, the Broncos brain trust won’t see anything that discourages them in their campaign to bring the four-time NFL most valuable player to Denver.


Colorado’s game plan tonight in the NCAA tournament

After Murray State eliminated Colorado State from March Madness this morning, the University of Colorado is the state’s last hope to advance beyond the round of 64 in the Division I tournament.

In fact, Colorado is also the Pac-12’s last hope after Cal, the conference’s only other tournament invitee, was eliminated in a play-in game Wednesday.

You might think, as I did, that CU’s best chance against the athletic, high-flying Runnin’ Rebels of UNLV would be to take the air out of the ball and turn tonight’s matchup into a half-court game, as Wisconsin did when the Badgers beat the Rebels 62-51 in December. But CU coach Tad Boyle said this week on the Dave Logan Show that’s not the plan.

“Here’s what the game plan is,” Boyle said. “Now, what the game plan is and what unfolds are sometimes different things, but we still want to run. When we get stops, we’re going to go, we’re going to attack. We always want to be in attack mode. I think in tournament basketball, the aggressive team has the advantage. So we are going to be the aggressor on both offense and defense. We’re going to attack. We’re not going to take the air out of the ball. We’re going to run.

“But what we have to do is we have to control the tempo of the game so that we can dictate when we do that and when we don’t do that. And that’s where I think, when you’re playing UNLV, you’d better dictate the tempo. If you let them dictate the tempo and you go toe to toe, athlete to athlete, we probably come up a little bit short.

“But we are going to run. We’re going to just pick and choose our spots. Off misses, rebounds, turnovers, we’re going to go. Off a made basket, you may see us execute in the half court. So I think you have to learn how to win games. If you saw us play in L.A., we were aggressive offensively when we had the advantage. But when we don’t, we’ve got to be smart, we’ve got to make them execute in the half court, because I think maybe advantage Buffaloes when it comes to that. But we’ll see how it plays out.”

In this morning’s game, Colorado State wanted to slow Murray State’s transition game, and largely succeeded. The Racers’ 58 points were their second-lowest point total of the season. But the Rams sabotaged their chances to stay close with a fatal 21 turnovers. Many were bad decisions, but Murray State also seemed to anticipate much of CSU’s interior passing game, frequently picking off feeds in the paint.

Like the Rams, the Buffaloes are underdogs as a No. 11 seed. When Dave Rice’s UNLV team gets out and runs, it can play with anyone, as it proved by defeating North Carolina in a 90-80 November track meet.

“We’ve got our hands full,” Boyle said. “We’ve got to (play good) transition defense, getting back, and they shoot over 23 three-point shots a game. They really use that to their advantage. They do it from a lot of different spots on the floor, a lot of different positions. If we can get our defense set, which is going to be easier said than done against those athletes, I like our chances. But that’s going to be a key to the game.”

CU came up big in the Pac-12 tourney, winning four games in four days to take the conference championship and earn its automatic bid to the big dance. Sophomore Andre Roberson and senior Carlon Brown were the tournament standouts, but the Buffs also got important contributions from seniors Nate Tomlinson and Austin Dufault and freshmen guards Spencer Dinwiddie and Askia Booker.

“Carlon Brown played with a sense of urgency, an aggressiveness, a confidence that we really needed,” Boyle said. “And that was infectious to our whole team. He made Nate more confident, he made Austin more confident, he helped our freshman guards, Spencer Dinwiddie and Askia Booker. I thought Austin Dufault had a great tournament.

“I think if you point to two guys, probably Carlon and Andre really stepped their games up, but Nate was terrific. I thought our freshmen played very, very well for freshmen. Spencer Dinwiddie was 4-for-4 from the three-point line in a championship game. I mean, we had some great performances. And I thought our bench played well when they needed to play well. Shane Harris-Tunks gave us some big-time minutes.

“To win four games in four days, you have to have contributions from multiple places and we got that. I was really proud of what these kids did. But all that stuff’s behind us. This is a new tournament. We’ve got to refocus, re-energize and we’ve got to approach Albuquerque just like we did L.A.”

Can the 23-11 Buffs pull off one more upset and make it to the round of 32? Tip-off is scheduled for 7:57 p.m. mountain time on TruTV.