Tag Archives: Tim Tebow

The engineer as artist: Peyton Manning sets a new standard

For those who weren’t in or around Denver at the time, it may be hard to believe that there was a vigorous debate, at least on sports talk radio, about the relative merits of Tim Tebow and Peyton Manning as the Broncos’ quarterback for 2012 and beyond.

One of the arguments advanced by the Tebow backers was there wouldn’t be much “beyond” with Manning. He was not, as they say, a quarterback of the future. At 36, he was a veteran of 13 NFL seasons coming off multiple neck surgeries and a full season of inactivity.

To jettison Tebow, who had just led the Broncos to an improbable postseason berth and first-round playoff victory in 2011, and replace him with what might turn out to be a relic, must be an act of desperation. The final acts of John Unitas, in San Diego, and Joe Namath, in Los Angeles, were referenced. John Elway, now pulling the strings in the Broncos’ front office, must be jealous of Tebow’s celebrity, some said. With many Tebow backers animated by imperatives beyond the world of football, it got pretty silly.

I remember one contending on the radio show that a Manning signing could only be justified by another championship parade in downtown Denver.

It did look that way. Manning was Elway’s attempt to go for greatness right away, just one year into his tenure as owner Pat Bowlen’s chief football executive. If the Broncos didn’t win a championship during whatever time Manning had left on the field, they would have to start over with his understudy, Brock Osweiler, which would make them just another team banking on potential.

Sometime between then and now, Manning changed all that. He recovered his brilliance so quickly, and made such an impact on the Broncos’ culture, and covered so ably for those physical abilities slowest to return, that he presented an opportunity we never imagined. He reached a skill level never before seen in football, a combination of intellectual and athletic rigor that took the game to another level. The quarterback was no longer a gunslinger. He was an engineer.

The Broncos have finished with a won-loss record of 13-3 in each of Manning’s two seasons in Denver. Before his arrival, they won that many games four times in 34 years of 16-game schedules. This year, at 37, Manning put up the best statistical season by a passer in NFL history.

Football fans had the sublime pleasure today of watching him finish the regular season with near perfection. He established league records for passing yards in a season (5,477, exactly one more than Drew Brees in 2011) and passing touchdowns (55, five more than Tom Brady in 2007). His largesse extended broadly, allowing the Broncos to set an NFL record for most players scoring ten touchdowns or more (five: Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas, Knowshon Moreno, Eric Decker and Wes Welker).

When Manning took back the passing touchdown record from Brady in the Broncos’ fifteenth game last week, he reached 51, one more than the previous mark. He predicted this record, like its predecessors in the category, would prove temporary. Manning began this stair-step escalation by exceeding Dan Marino’s 20-year-old mark of 48 by one in 2004. Brady slipped past, again by one, in 2007. Busting Brady’s six-year-old record by five may mean Manning’s mark stands a bit longer.

He made today’s regular-season finale at Oakland look like a Broncos practice and the Raiders’ defense like the Broncos’ scout team. Actually, that’s probably unfair to the Broncos’ scout team. In former Broncos defensive coordinator Dennis Allen’s second season as a head coach, the Raiders finished as though they deserved their 4-12 record.

As long as Manning was on the field, the matchup seemed unfair. The Broncos had five possessions. Four ended in touchdown passes, the fifth in a Matt Prater field goal. Manning failed to complete only three of 28 passes, spread the 25 completions among nine receivers and passed for those four touchdowns, one of them a gorgeous 63-yard bomb to Demaryius Thomas that made even Manning smile. It did not help the Raiders that their offense, directed by Terrelle Pryor, kept giving the ball back, once at its own 21-yard line on a bad snap. By halftime, it was 31-0.

“Obviously, not our best effort in the first half of the football game,” Allen said. “We got beat by a better team today. Offensively, we weren’t able to really get anything going. Defensively, obviously, that quarterback is really good. I thought there was a couple times where we had some opportunities to potentially get off the field. I thought they put the throw in there when they needed to and they were able to convert and that’s the difference between getting off the field and saving points and giving up points.”

Following the intermission, Broncos coach John Fox chose discretion, replacing Manning with Osweiler. This was, as the ever-competitive Manning pointed out afterward, “a coach’s decision.”

“Our goal was to play as good as we have to date this season,” Fox said. “And the way it worked out, I thought the first half was about as good in all three phases as we’ve been all year. It allowed us to get some guys out of the game and rest them, not to risk injury, and still take care of business on the field.”

By taking care of business, Fox meant winning the game and earning the top postseason seed in the AFC, meaning any and all Broncos playoff games prior to the Super Bowl will be in Denver. Of course, that was the situation last year, too, but we’ll get to that in a minute. As is his custom, Manning explained a memorable regular season by talking about the team’s accomplishments and not his own.

“I think it’s been really good focus on the players’ part,” he said. “We’ve had a number of distractions — injuries, off-field situations, on-field situations — but I think the one constant has been the players’ focus. They have remained focused on the task at hand, on trying to improve everybody’s individual play, which hopefully would result in better team play. But it’s a season unlike any other for me as far as having your head coach ill and missing for a while. We’ve had some injuries. We had the offseason. Those things are well documented. But the players have kind of kept their focus on trying to do players’ jobs. I think that’s been constant, and I think that’s served us well.”

This is the Manning mantra: Do the little things, do your job, take care of every detail. If every individual does that, it can add up to something quite remarkable. Particularly if the signal-caller, the quarterback, is the most maniacal of all about this preparation.

The 34-14 final score against Oakland gave the Broncos a season total of 606 points, another league record. For the benefit of trivia buffs and those already preparing for Mardi Gras, the 2011 New Orleans Saints retained the record for most yards gained in a season with 7,474. This year’s Broncos managed 7,317 for second place.

Manning’s surgical accuracy prompted analyst Solomon Wilcots to extol him on the CBS telecast as the greatest quarterback in the 94-year history of the NFL. Watching him against the Raiders, it was hard to argue. If he doesn’t win his fifth most valuable player trophy — extending another record — there should be an investigation. His relentless drive, combined with the Broncos’ seemingly endless supply of capable receivers, made Denver’s merciless offensive efficiency seem inevitable. Compared to the hope-and-prayer offenses of so many teams, it represented the NFL’s version of fine art.

On the flip side, there was this, from CBS play-by-play man Kevin Harlan: “The Raiders’ performance in the first half was about as bad as we’ve seen.”

Manning has made a lot of teams look that way this year. Three that didn’t, the Indianapolis Colts, New England Patriots and San Diego Chargers, made the postseason tournament as well, so now we get a week or two of reminiscing about last year, when the Broncos had the same record and the same playoff seed and still lost their first playoff game, to the Baltimore Ravens.

So we’ll see. Tony Dungy, Manning’s coach for seven years in Indianapolis, likes his chances to get through the AFC side of the bracket this year because none of the other playoff teams have great defenses to stop him. Where the 2012 edition was riding an 11-game winning streak and feeling pretty good about itself, this year’s version lost just three weeks ago and remembers it quite clearly.

Another advantage is the still-raw memory of that bitterly cold day last January when the Broncos surrendered a seven-point lead in the final minute of regulation by blowing the coverage on a hope and a prayer by Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco. Elway likens it to 1996, when the Broncos team he quarterbacked to a 13-3 record was upset in its first home playoff game by the Jacksonville Jaguars. That memory helped propel those Broncos to Super Bowl championships after each of the next two seasons.

Are these Broncos ready to do the same? They certainly looked like it in the regular season finale, although allowances must be made for the quality of the opposition. The regular-season losses to Indianapolis, New England and San Diego made it clear they are not invincible. Environmental conditions can turn any outdoor mid-winter game into a crap shoot, including the Super Bowl this year in New Jersey. So can ball control that keeps the football away from Manning, as the Chargers demonstrated.

Whatever happens in the new year, it no longer seems even remotely true that the Broncos need to win a Super Bowl to justify the Manning signing. It has already brought the Broncos two of the best seasons in their history. Manning’s remarkable comeback and relentless work ethic have set a standard we’ve never seen before.

He was asked, of course, whether the Broncos need to confirm the regular season this year in the playoffs.

“Well, sure,” he said. “We’ve had our goals all along. And this is why you work hard in the offseason. This is why you lift weights and have the offseason program, is to give yourself an opportunity to play in the postseason. But I’ll tell you, it’s a fun group of guys to play with. Offensively, it’s been a fun unit to meet with, practice with, watch tape with, work after practice with. And I’ve really enjoyed the coaches and the players on offense. It’s been a fun group.”

This is Manning acknowledging the obvious, but also sharing what he can about how he and his teammates got to this point. He loves the process, from offseason workouts to training camp and every week of practice through the long season. Only someone who loves it that much could so utterly master it. But he won’t entertain any of the big-picture questions — the records, the legacy — at least until the postseason is over.

“It’s not easy to go back-to-back 13-and-3s,” Fox said. “It’s not easy to go back-to-back 1-seeds. Obviously, everybody in our building, in our city, probably in our region, maybe in the country, was disappointed in how we finished a year ago. So hopefully that’s been a fire in the bellies of everyone in our building since that last January.”

The Broncos and many fans will be bitterly disappointed at any outcome other than a Super Bowl this year. Manning will most certainly be among them. That doesn’t change the fact that his 2013 regular season is already immortal, a story we’ll be telling a generation from now, no matter what happens next.

Tom Jackson: ‘There is a collective sigh of relief and a sense of joy in this building’

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.”

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.

Sizing up Peyton Manning’s options

For what it’s worth, Vegas still thinks the Broncos are the favorites to land Peyton Manning. In odds published Tuesday by the Los Angeles Times, R.J. Bell of Pregame.com had the Broncos at 24 percent, the Dolphins at 14 percent, the Cardinals at 11 percent and the Titans at 10 percent.

Of course, the Titans’ odds seem to have improved after yesterday’s meeting with Manning in Nashville.

Over the past week, a lot of folks have floated alleged scoops on Twitter that turned out to be false, so let’s clear up a couple of things:

The Broncos have had no contact with Tim Tebow since the Manning courtship began. If you think about it for a moment, there’s not much they could say. Until Manning makes his choice, Tebow, the Broncos and the rest of planet Earth are in a holding pattern.

The Broncos have not pestered Manning for progress reports or a decision since he left Denver on Saturday. John Elway is driving this bus. He and Manning connected well during the visit Friday and Saturday. The Broncos expect Manning to be as thorough in this process as he is in his game preparation, which is very. They do not feel the urgency, say, of Arizona, which would have to release its current starter, Kevin Kolb, by 2 p.m. mountain time Friday to avoid paying him a $7 million bonus on Saturday.

Still, the worst-case scenario for the Broncos would be a little messy. If Manning signs elsewhere and Tebow is so upset by the courtship that he demands a trade or his release — an unlikely outcome, I think, but a possible one — the Broncos wouldn’t have a quarterback. Some free agent options are already choosing their new laundry. Jason Campbell has agreed to terms with the Bears and Kyle Orton is joining the Cowboys, not that either side would have had much interest in that reunion.

All that said, let’s have a look at the pros and cons of Manning’s four main options:


Pros: The Cardinals offer the best receiving weapons among Manning’s suitors in wideout Larry Fitzgerald and tight end Todd Heap. They also have a respected offensive mind in head coach Ken Whisenhunt. They made sufficient salary cap room to do a deal by cutting left tackle Levi Brown. They play their home games indoors, just as Manning did for the first 14 seasons of his career in Indianapolis.

Cons: The Cardinals gave up the second highest sack total in the league over the past two seasons, and that’s before they cut Brown, their best offensive lineman. They’re in the NFC, a conference less familiar to Manning than the AFC, where he’s played his entire career. They’re in a division with the San Francisco 49ers, who won 13 games last season and came within a dropped punt of the Super Bowl. They’ve never won a Super Bowl and their ownership, the Bidwell family, is . . . how to put this politely . . . not among the most respected in the league.


Pros: Manning has a condo there. The weather is nice. They have the best defense of the contenders, or did last season, anyway, when they surrendered 19.6 points a game, sixth-best in the NFL.

Cons: They just traded away their best receiver in Brandon Marshall. Speculation had it they would replace him with Reggie Wayne, Manning’s old pal from Indianapolis, but then Wayne re-upped with the Colts. The Dolphins have had largely dysfunctional management over the past several years. This year, they have a new coaching staff with a rookie head coach in Joe Philbin. They play in the same division with the New England Patriots.


Pros: Manning went to college there. Manning’s wife went to college there. Manning’s wife grew up in Memphis. The Titans play in the AFC South, the same division as the Colts, so the opponents and schedules would be familiar. It’s generally a warm-weather climate, although not always. They have the second-best defense of Manning’s suitors, having surrendered 19.8 points per game last season.

Cons: The targets in the passing game are OK, but nothing special. It’s not clear that anybody in the organization other than 89-year-old owner Bud Adams is that fired up about tearing up their current quarterback succession plan to bring in Manning and his offense. They already have a veteran in Matt Hasselbeck and a first-round apprentice in Jake Locker. And, as Manning knows, the Houston Texans are an emerging power in the division. They went 10-6 last season with starting quarterback Matt Schaub missing the last six games and the playoffs with a foot injury. With a healthy Schaub, they might have won 12.


Pros: The clearest path to the playoffs. The AFC West is the weakest division of the four Manning is looking at. Offensive coordinator Mike McCoy proved last season he will tailor his offense to his quarterback. John Elway can relate to Manning in a way no other suitor can, as a member of the elite club of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. John Fox is an easygoing, defense-oriented head coach. And the Broncos have the most salary cap space of the four (roughly $40 million), enough to do a deal with Manning and a couple of his best friends (Jeff Saturday? Dallas Clark?) too.

Cons: The targets in the passing game are OK, but nothing special, at least not yet. The offensive line is excellent in the running game but only so-so in pass protection. The defense, although improving, remains a work in progress. The Broncos play their home games outdoors, where it sometimes snows in Colorado (although it was 65 and sunny on the March days Manning visited).

Rational analysis may not determine the outcome here — emotions certainly come into a decision like this — but if it does, the speculation focusing on Tennessee and Denver makes some sense. Arizona and Miami have questionable management. Denver has solid ownership and management and a winning tradition. Tennessee is familiar ground with solid management and a pretty fair team.

The Broncos will have fences to mend and roster work to do if Manning goes elsewhere. For now, they are focused on shoring up the defensive line — they are interested in Paul Soliai, the former Dolphins defensive tackle, and their own free agent, Brodrick Bunkley — as well as the secondary. As is their custom, they are content to let the big spenders go first, then search for value.

The bottom line on the Broncos’ pursuit of Manning is this: Elway is in charge, and Elway is interested in Super Bowls. The argument that the Broncos improved last year and won their division (on a tie-breaker) with Tebow doesn’t cut much ice with Elway. He knows what it takes to be a Super Bowl contender and he believes bringing in Manning is the fastest way to get there. He knows the Manning courtship is a high risk/high reward mission. He believes that going for greatness usually is.

Are you kidding? Of course the Broncos should make a play for Peyton Manning

Darnell Dockett wasted no time launching his campaign to get Peyton Manning to join the Arizona Cardinals.

“Peyton to AZ!!!!!!” Dockett tweeted Tuesday as word circulated that Manning would be released by the Colts, which he was this morning.

As Dockett made clear in subsequent appearances on the NFL Network and ESPN, this was not intended to disparage Kevin Kolb, the quarterback the Cardinals signed to a five-year, $63.5 million contract, $21 million of it guaranteed, less than a year ago.

“I don’t have anything against our quarterback we have now,” Dockett said. “I feel confident in him. Who wouldn’t want to play with Peyton Manning?”

Seriously. The Broncos should feel the same way.

The Jets have Mark Sanchez, the fifth overall draft pick in 2009, and they’re reportedly ready to make a play to make New York a two-Manning market.

In short, there is no good reason for the Broncos not to join the party. All Manning can say is no.

A Broncos spokesman said Wednesday the team will have no comment on the matter until next week.

It is no knock on Tim Tebow, in whom the Broncos have a smaller financial investment than the Cardinals have in Kolb or the Jets have in Sanchez, to suggest that he could learn a thing or two from a four-time NFL most valuable player. Nor is it an exaggeration to say that adding Manning would add a rocket booster to the Broncos’ plan to return to contention.

Based on eyewitness reports and a brief video of a Manning throwing session last week at Duke University, he is much closer to being ready to play again than many observers expected after multiple surgeries to repair a neck injury. While he said Wednesday he still has some progress to make in his throwing, he is a well-known perfectionist, and the video from Duke showed him throwing both long and short distances with no apparent trouble.

Manning will turn 36 later this month. Assuming he can stay healthy, he should have several productive years left in him.

The difficulty for the Broncos, of course, would be persuading him that Denver is the best spot for him. The Dolphins, Redskins, Jets, Cardinals and Seahawks are all expected to make plays, and there could be others. Of those teams, only the Jets could argue they are significantly closer to competing for a championship than the Broncos, and even that’s debatable after the Broncos beat them last season.

It’s possible that Manning, who has played his home games indoors throughout his tenure in Indianapolis, will prefer a warm-weather climate. The Broncos can’t do anything about that, but it can’t do any harm to make  pitch. They’ll never know unless they try.

One factor in their favor is they have as much room under the NFL salary cap as any team in the league. How much of it they would be willing to devote to a veteran quarterback is another matter, but unless Pat Bowlen has more financial troubles than we know, money should not be an obstacle.

Bottom line, there is no reason not to make a pitch. Manning is one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history. He’s available. He still wants to play. He will dramatically improve some NFL team. Why not the Broncos?

Just what sort of quarterbacks are the Broncos looking for?

Here’s what we know: Tim Tebow is the Broncos’ starting quarterback going into training camp this summer, but with only two quarterbacks under contract — Tebow and second-year undrafted free agent Adam Weber — the Broncos are planning to add at least two more to the roster between now and then.

Here’s what we don’t know: What kind of quarterbacks do the Broncos want to add? Do they want someone like pending free agent Jason Campbell of the Raiders, a career-long starter who would want a genuine opportunity to compete for the starting job? Or do they want an older veteran, someone like 37-year-old Jake Delhomme, who has a long history with head coach John Fox and would likely be willing to accept a role as Tebow’s backup and confidant?

If Broncos’ brass knows the answer, it’s not saying.

“We’re in the process right now of going through that, going through the free agency,” John Elway said Monday on the Dave Logan Show.

“We got done with our free agent meetings today, going through the process of ranking every position, not only the quarterback position but obviously every position. So I think as we go over and discuss each position we’ll come to a conclusion of what we’re looking for at each position, whether that be the quarterback or the defensive line position. I think the bottom line is you’re always looking at a chance to try to get better and bring in somebody that is going to come in and compete and make the people they’re competing with better.”

Coach John Fox was no more forthcoming, telling the Denver Post: “Who, what, where, when, what market — it’s still way too early (to say) how we get those quarterbacks.”

Actually, it may be a little early, but not much. The NFL free agent market opens March 13 — three weeks from today. A long and varied list of quarterbacks will become free agents that day if their current teams don’t sign them to new contracts in the interim.

It begins with an impressive name that won’t actually be available. Although they’ve been talking about it for 18 months, the Saints and Drew Brees still haven’t reached agreement on a new deal. Nevertheless, Brees will be back in New Orleans next season, even if the Saints have to slap a franchise tag on him.

Alex Smith of the 49ers is in approximately the same situation. If his success under coach Jim Harbaugh last season didn’t make his return to San Francisco obvious, his decision to carry Harbaugh’s bag at the Pebble Beach Pro-Am did.

There’s also Matt Flynn, the 26-year-old Packers backup with two career NFL starts. Thanks mostly to one really good start at the end of the season, he’s about to hit the free agent jackpot, probably in Miami, where Green Bay’s former offensive coordinator, Joe Philbin, is now head coach.

Then there’s Peyton Manning, who could be waived prior to March 8, when the Colts owe him a $28 million bonus. Manning will be 36 next month and missed all of last season with a neck injury. His health and arm strength remain question marks after four surgical procedures. Some team that believes it’s one quarterback away from a Super Bowl — say, the Jets — might take a shot if Manning and the Colts can’t rework their deal, but it won’t be the Broncos.

After that, the list of available quarterbacks goes downhill pretty fast. Campbell, 30, is probably the best of the lot. Like Tebow, he was the 25th pick of the draft, in his case the 2005 edition. Campbell has never been a backup, starting 70 of the 71 games in which he’s appeared, so it’s unlikely he’s signing anywhere he doesn’t have at least an even chance to win the starting job.

Also on the free agent list: Delhomme, Kyle Orton (uh, no), Brady Quinn (not if he can help it), David Garrard, Chad Pennington, Chad Henne, Vince Young, Kyle Boller, Dennis Dixon, Shaun Hill, Byron Leftwich, Luke McCown, Charlie Whitehurst, Kellen Clemens, Derek Anderson and . . . well . . . you get the idea. The usual suspects.

Tebowmania is another variable likely to cull the list. On some teams, the backup quarterback is the most popular guy in town. Not on this one.

The other addition to the quarterback depth chart is likely to come from the class of 2012. The top prospects, Andrew Luck of Stanford and Robert Griffin III of Baylor, will be long gone by the time the Broncos exercise their first draft pick (No. 25). Most of the rest should be available, either there, later in the draft or in the aftermarket of undrafted free agents.

Among them: Ryan Tannehill of Texas A&M, Brandon Weeden of Oklahoma State, Nick Foles of Arizona, Brock Osweiler of Arizona State, B.J. Coleman of UT-Chattanooga and Kirk Cousins of Michigan State.

The Broncos have to answer an interesting question here, too: Do they want a traditional pocket passer in the mold Elway prefers? Or do they want somebody on the roster other than Tebow who can run the read option? That, in turn, depends on whether they believe Tebow will progress enough as a pocket passer this offseason to render the read option a one-year experiment rather than a staple of their offense.

If they want another mobile quarterback who could run last year’s offense in a pinch, they might take a look at former Rockies prospect Russell Wilson of Wisconsin or Darron Thomas of Oregon.

In short, given the available alternatives, it’s not clear that Tebow will have any serious competition for the starting job.

With Fox entering his second year as coach, the Broncos’ emphasis remains on the defensive side of the ball, where they need help along the interior of the line, in the backfield and potentially at middle linebacker, depending on their current view of Nate Irving, the third-round draft pick last year who was unable to supplant Joe Mays as a rookie.

The many and varied Tebow-oriented debates aside, he went 8-5 as a starter last season, putting him pretty far down the Broncos’ list of immediate issues. So while the club will be adding bodies at his position, it’s looking all but certain Tebow will get a chance to build on his successes in 2011 as the Broncos’ starter in 2012.

Craig Morton turns 69: ‘Life is not that bad’

Not to make you feel old if you remember the Broncos’ first trip to the Super Bowl as if it were yesterday, but Craig Morton’s 69th birthday is Sunday, the same day as Super Bowl XLVI.

“I live in northern California, right outside of San Francisco in Mill Valley,” the former Cowboys, Giants and Broncos quarterback told us on the Dave Logan Show recently.

“I was working with the University of California at Berkeley for the last seven years as a fundraiser and helped raise about $320 million. They had some cutbacks and so they kind of said, ‘Well, I guess you’re getting real old, Craig, so we’ve got to get rid of you.’

“So I’m just sitting here looking at the tulips and I’m looking at San Francisco across my little balcony here, so life is not that bad.”

Morton played in the AFC championship game that catapulted the Broncos to their first Super Bowl after spending the preceding week in the hospital, but he wasn’t above playing it up a little to inspire his teammates.

“I was in the hospital from after the Steeler game until Sunday morning of the championship game,” Morton recalled, referring to the Broncos’ 34-21 victory over Pittsburgh in the divisional round.

“I couldn’t move the leg. They would try everything. Jack Dolbin really helped me a lot. He found this machine called the galvanic stimulator and it helped pump some blood through it. They’d come in five times a night and try to drain the blood from my leg.

“A friend of mine came in to pick me up to take me to the stadium on Sunday morning and he said, ‘You’ve worked all your life for this opportunity again; do not consider not playing.’ When he said that, I said, ‘Get me to the stadium.’ I sat in the whirlpool for a few hours and I really played it up. I sat on the training table and made sure everybody could see my black leg as I was turning colors.”

Various accounts at the time described Morton’s hip as black, blue and, in some places, a certain shade of green.

“I could back up and throw,” he said. “If I had to run, I couldn’t do it. But it worked out. I just said, ‘If they don’t touch me, we’ll win this game.’ I think they touched me twice. The defense played great and Haven (Moses) came through and the offensive line came through and we did it.”

As a result of that victory over the Raiders, Morton became the first player in NFL history to start Super Bowls for two different teams — the Cowboys in Super Bowl V and the Broncos in Super Bowl XII. Kurt Warner later became the second.

Part of Morton’s enduring affection for his days in Denver arises from Denver’s enduring affection for him. In Dallas, he’d been part of a running quarterback controversy with Roger Staubach. In New York, by his own account, he was not exactly a fan favorite.

“What (Cowboys) coach (Tom) Landry did to me two or three times, this is kind of his relationship with me,” Morton recalled. “He’d call me at about 10:30 at night when he was trying to make his decision who to go with, Roger or myself. And he’d say, ‘Craig, you’re home.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’m home.’ Whatever my reputation is, I would never break curfew. I mean, who wants to feel bad? I’m a single guy, (but) I’m not going to go out the night before a game or any of that stuff.

“And he says, ‘Can you come over?’ So I said, ‘Sure.’ So I go over and his wife, Alicia, would answer the door. Tom would be there and he said, ‘Come into my study.’ And I go into his study and I sit down and he says, ‘Craig, you know, I’ve just got this feeling, I think I’m going to go with Roger. Thanks for coming over.’ And that was it.

“And I said, ‘What do you mean you’ve got this feeling? And what do you mean coming over here for five seconds? Let’s get into this a little bit more.’ ‘No,’ he said, ‘I just wanted to tell you that in person, so thanks for coming over.'”

When he finally asked the Cowboys for a trade, they moved him to New York. He played two and a half seasons there before the Giants moved him to Denver before the 1977 season.

“Going to Denver was a whole new deal because I wanted to leave New York so badly because we were so bad and they didn’t like me at all,” Morton said. “The last game I played with the Giants was against Denver and I said, ‘Boy, this team could be great if they just had a quarterback that wouldn’t make any mistakes.’

“Then coming in and seeing what their offense was, that’s exactly what they did, is play to (defensive coordinator) Joe Collier and his defense. That’s what my role was. I knew it. They didn’t have to tell me. You knew, just give the defense a chance to give you better field position.”

Morton got to see a limited number of telecasts featuring this year’s Broncos, but I asked him for his take on the option offense offensive coordinator Mike McCoy installed to take advantage of quarterback Tim Tebow’s skill set.

“I don’t know if he could play any other offense,” Morton said. “I’ve heard that John (Elway) was considering working with him. He’s got a lot of work to do in his footwork and his hips. But he’s got great talent and he’s a winner and he’s one of the great role models I’ve seen in the last 20 or 30 years and man, I hope he’s successful.

“He’s got a pretty good arm. He’s got some hitches in it, but with his athletic ability and how strong he is, he can get that ball up a little higher and he can throw that ‘out’ at 15 (yards). He just needs a little work on it. But he wins. And I know Elway will make the right decision because he’s the best quarterback I’ve ever seen play. If he can rub a little bit off on Tim Tebow, then he’ll have great success.”

It’s been 34 years since he helped the Broncos win their first AFC championship, but Morton still has fond memories of that team.

“We were a great, close team that had a tremendous amount of fun,” he said. “We spent hours after games together. We had dinners together. We had great guys that loved Red Miller, that loved Fred Gehrke and just loved the whole situation that we were thrust into. Denver adapted to us and cheered us on and painted everything orange. It was just a magical thing that certainly will never happen again.

“Our team was just fortunate to be as close as we were. And we let the whole town in on our fun, too, so that was a great time.”

For Chauncey Billups, it’s all good again

Chauncey Billups’ return home was everything he hoped — and maybe one veteran move more.

When he was introduced as a member of the visiting Los Angeles Clippers’ starting lineup Sunday night, the full house at the Pepsi Center gave him a standing ovation. Even Tim Tebow showed up to watch, sitting courtside.

(During a timeout, Rocky, the Nuggets’ mascot, got Tebow to sign a football. Then he punted it into the stands. Rocky, not Tebow. Let’s just say Britton Colquitt has nothing to worry about.)

Billups is no longer bitter about the trade that uprooted him from his family and home town 11 months ago, but he did have a little something to say about it, pouring in a game-high 32 points, flushing six of 12 three-pointers and drawing a foul in the final 18 seconds that would have been funny if it hadn’t been so damaging to the Nuggets.

The result — a victory for his new team over his old one and happy goodbyes to the 30 family and friends he estimated were on hand.

“Everybody knows how I feel about Denver and these fans and the people here,” he said in the visitors’ locker room afterward. “It feels good to get that reciprocated and know that they feel the same way about you.”

Billups has come to terms with once again being a pawn in the NBA’s byzantine player movement rules, but he wasn’t so sanguine when he got thrown into the Nuggets’ Melodrama and shipped to New York with Carmelo Anthony even though, unlike Melo, he had no interest in leaving.

“I was just frustrated having to be caught up in that,” he said. “It really wasn’t my fight, although I had to go down. So that was frustrating, knowing that it’s going to be what it’s going to be but not because of anything I did. I’ve accomplished a lot in my career and I’ve done a lot. Being thrown into deals is for some people that haven’t accomplished what I’ve accomplished. So that was the frustration that I had from it, but it is what it is.”

I asked if it occurred to him it was the second time his hometown team threw him into a trade for salary cap purposes, a previous Nuggets regime having thrown him into the Ron Mercer trade to Orlando 12 years ago.

“Did it occur to me?” he asked incredulously. “Of course, man! Of course. It sucks, you know what I’m saying? But it’s kind of how this business goes. But everybody’s all good now. The Nuggets are good, I’m good. Everything happens how it’s supposed to.”

That wasn’t the last indignity of 2011. When the lockout ended, the Knicks released Billups under an amnesty provision that allowed them to wipe his $14 million salary off their payroll, leaving enough room under the salary cap to acquire center Tyson Chandler.

In a particularly demeaning feature of the amnesty provision, teams putting in waiver claims had to bid the salary they were willing to pay — that is, the part of the guaranteed $14 million they would take off the Knicks’ hands. The Clippers won the auction with a bid reportedly just over $2 million.

Billups lobbied publicly for teams not to claim him so he could become a free agent and choose a destination himself.

“If I get claimed by a team I don’t want to play for, I would absolutely consider retirement,” he told ESPN in early December. “The game’s been really good to me and I don’t want anyone to feel bad for me. I’ve made a lot of money and I’ve saved most of it. I don’t need the money now. I want to be able to play for something, a championship, and I want to be able to have my own destiny in my hands. If I don’t, then retiring might be a decision I make.”

Undaunted, the Clippers claimed him off waivers. Their second-year coach, Vinny Del Negro, went about trying to sell Billups on joining an improving young team that had last season’s rookie of the year, Blake Griffin, and was in the process of trading for four-time all-star Chris Paul.

“I talked to Chauncey a lot about it,” Del Negro said. “I just told him how I work and how we do things and the outside perception of the organization is not the actual thing that goes on inside our practice facility and inside our organization. I told him, ‘Once you get a feel for it, I think you’ll respect that.’

“I just told him honestly what I thought he could bring and I think it just took him a little bit of time to kind of realize that those weren’t just words, it was actually the fact. He’s such a pro and he knows how valuable he is to our team. After he got acclimated to everything going on, I think he’s in a good place now and we need him to play well and he knows that. And he’s going to be a big part of our continued growth and hopefully our success this year.”

He certainly was Sunday.

“I think we saw Chauncey do a similar thing to Detroit when we went back to Detroit,” Nuggets coach George Karl said afterward, referring to Billups’ way of reminding former employers that he remembers their letting him go. “When he gets in that zone . . . .”

So the conversations with Del Negro helped change Billups’ mind about retirement.

“He empathized with me a little bit and felt bad about the position that I was in because guys like myself don’t deserve to be in those positions,” Billups said. “He just told me how it really was. Like, how he coaches, what’s expected, what it’s going to be, how he thinks myself and Chris can play together and be effective. And it’s been good.”

At 35, Billups is no longer thinking about retirement. He’s back to wanting to play as long as he’s able to have nights like Sunday, his 42nd career game of 30 or more points.

“I feel like I’ve got some good years left in me,” he said. “As long as I can stay healthy and can be effective out there, I’ll keep going, man. I’ll keep going.”

With 18 seconds left in Sunday night’s game and the Clippers clinging to a two-point lead, the Nuggets fed the ball to Nene near the paint. Because of a defensive switch, the 6-foot-3-inch Billups found himself guarding the 6-11 Brazilian power forward. He tried to front Nene to prevent him from getting the ball. There was a little contact. Billups went flying, as if he’d been shot. A referee dutifully called Nene for an offensive foul. Karl went ballistic.

“We knew we was switching and I figured at some point I’d probably be on him,” Billups explained. “They wanted to exploit the mismatch, which they went to, Nene versus me. I was just kind of fronting him and as soon as he grabbed me and pushed me, I’m gone.”

“He must have hit you really hard,” I said.

“Yeah,” Billups said, not quite able to suppress a smile. “I mean, my back is hurting, everything. I need a chiropractor, man.”

The Clippers are Billups’ eighth NBA team if you count the Nuggets only once but also count the Magic, for which he never played a game. Thursday, when the Clippers and Nuggets play a rematch in L.A., will be his 1,000th career game. He and the Nuggets’ Andre Miller, who will hit the milestone in the same game assuming both play the intervening games this week, will become the 107th and 108th players in NBA history to do so.

“It’s crazy,” Billups said. “When I was growing up, I just wished that I played one NBA game and had that jersey and take a picture of it so I could just tell people I played in the NBA. That’s the blessing that I’ve had. One thousand. Hopefully, I make it there. One thousand. Unbelievable. It’s humbling, man.”

Both times they traded him, the Nuggets had their reasons. Mostly financial, both times. But whenever people start railing about the lack of loyalty in the modern pro athlete, think about Chauncey Billups. Denver has not produced a better basketball player. He wanted to be here. The hometown team sent him away not once, but twice. It was just business.

The Clippers are now 11-6, in first place in the NBA’s Pacific Division. The king of Park Hill may get the last laugh yet.