As a former teammate, Tom Jackson felt for John Elway from afar last year.
“Some of the stuff that I heard, and I hear everything that goes on in this town, some of the stuff that was happening over the net and the tweets that were coming when he attempted to tell the truth about his feelings about Tim (Tebow), I think he was somewhat shocked by the reaction of fans: ‘You need to leave town.’ ‘You’re jealous of him.’ It was hurtful. I wish I would have been around here when that happened. They would have heard an earful,” Jackson said during a recent visit to Broncos training camp.
As a member of the Orange Crush defense of the late 1970s, Jackson admits he’s partial to the Broncos, but it’s as a long-time analyst for ESPN that he says the Broncos with Peyton Manning are the best story in the NFL going into the 2012 season. And he thinks the events of Elway’s first 18 months running the Broncos front office may represent the most dramatic change of direction in NFL history.
“The stars had to be perfectly aligned for this to happen,” he said. “I always speak frankly: What happened last year is that there was a clamoring from the Tebow faithful for Tim to play football. I think that the Broncos resisted that as long as they could.
“At some point they said, and it had to do somewhat with Kyle Orton not playing very well, they said, ‘OK, we’re going to let you see him and see what we see.’ I believe they used the term at times in a different context, ‘You don’t see him every day.’ So they were going to go, OK, you’re going to get to see what we see every day. And they put him in.
“And then Tim won. And he won a lot. And he won in the most remarkable fashion that I’ve ever seen. So by the time you got to the end of the year with the win against Pittsburgh, if you were John, if you were this organization — and I think it’s the right of every GM, vice president of football operations, to do two things: name your head coach and name your quarterback — and John was having that opportunity taken from him. And I believe that without this alignment of the stars, Tim was your quarterback, period. And maybe more than a year. He was just going to be entrenched as the quarterback.
“Peyton becomes available, somehow John and Pat Bowlen land him, and now we’re going to have a revision of what goes on here in Denver. This is the story in the NFL, is this guy returning to play football, the once and only four-time MVP of the National Football League, returning to play football. And it’s a remarkable story.”
But will he be the Peyton Manning of old? Studies of late-stage veterans changing teams are all the rage. Will Manning be more like Ray Bourque in Denver or John Unitas in San Diego? Or maybe somewhere in between — say, Joe Montana in Kansas City? What about the Broncos’ receivers? What about the defense? (And, in light of Saturday’s intra-squad scrimmage, what about the offensive line?) Are they good enough to constitute the supporting cast of a championship contender?
“I think that they’re going to be a pretty good team because I have faith that Peyton is going to be a pretty good quarterback,” Jackson said. “John Elway did his homework before he made this move. I was just like a lot of people — very pessimistic about the fact that Peyton could come back and return to form.
“You talk to some medical experts, they all say the same thing: His neck is fine. As soon as he strengthens the arm, as he has, he should be fine to play. I worry a little bit about the rust. When he lines up against the Steelers (in the Sept. 9 season opener), he will be 20 months having not played a meaningful game.
“But given that, if Peyton is back to form, which I think he will be, then all of those things that you talked about become better. You lose 20-25 percent of your running game because Tim Tebow leaves. You gain 20-25 percent because Peyton’s going to pull two or three guys out of the box, at least one or two.
“The defense, I was talking to Von Miller, Von and Elvis get 21 sacks (last season). I told him, ‘I have no idea how you do that when you’re behind all the time.’ If Peyton comes in and puts up 20-plus points per game, then you’re going to have a better opportunity to play defense because it’s easier to play when you have the lead.
“The wide receivers, (Eric) Decker, Demaryius Thomas, (Brandon) Stokley; the tight ends, (Jacob) Tamme, (Joel) Dreessen, all of those players are pretty good players. They will be made better by the guy pulling the trigger.
“All you need do is be around here to understand that there is a collective sigh of relief and a sense of joy in this building that did not exist when I was here last year. And I can feel it and it’s permeating every area of this football team.
“I think they’re almost hesitant to talk about it because they see it as a bashing of what they did last year, or a bashing of Tebow, to really go overboard on what they’re feeling about Peyton being here. But I think as time goes on they’ll get more and more relaxed with the fact that this, as Gene Hackman said in Hoosiers, this is your team. Feel comfortable this is your squad. Not something that’s going on in New York. Not the attention given to someone else. This is your team.”
Jackson’s Broncos career overlapped with Elway’s for four seasons: 1983-86, so he’s known him since he was the fresh-faced rookie who once lined up under guard. Having watched him since, he thinks Elway has a good chance to be a notable exception to the old saw about great players not being great executives or coaches.
“I believe that John is going to have great success over the long run, whether it’s in terms of the players that they’re picking — Von Miller probably the most high profile amongst them thus far — or going out and being able to get a Peyton Manning when there were numerous teams that wanted him. That move is going to resonate for a long time with him and this organization.
“John just has a golden touch. He understands the game. I think he has a clear vision of what he wants to do. And that’s why I felt for him last year because my thought was that vision was being taken away from him.
“I said this actually on ESPN, for those that think that he was jealous, if you heard his comment about Peyton upon arrival — “I want Peyton Manning to be the greatest quarterback of all time.” — well, that would mean that he’s better than John.
“So I think it speaks really to what’s important to John right now. And I want people to know this: John has a great love and affection for Pat Bowlen. So I don’t think it’s as much John doing it for John as it is John doing it for Pat.”
I reminded Jackson of Bowlen’s famous line, “This one’s for John,” holding aloft the Vince Lombardi Trophy when the Broncos won their first Super Bowl in Elway’s 15th season, and asked if he thought Elway was trying to return the favor.
“This one’s for John,” Jackson said, smiling. “This one’s for Pat.”
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