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?
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.”