published Tuesday, March 20th, 2012

Peyton Manning update: What happens next

New York Times News Service
  • photo
    Former Colts star Peyton Manning points out a play during a game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Peyton Manning, one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history, will continue his career with the Denver Broncos, concluding a fevered free-agent pursuit and at the same time perhaps accomplishing something that seemed unthinkable just three months ago: the end of the Broncos career of Tim Tebow.

The wait for Manning's decision, which was confirmed Monday by two people briefed on the negotiations, captivated the league for the nearly two weeks since the Indianapolis Colts released him. Now he will replace Tebow, the quarterback who became a sports and cultural phenomenon last season with a style of play that could not be less like Manning's.

In the wake of the Broncos' playoff loss to the New England Patriots in January, the Denver owner, Pat Bowlen, remarked that it had been a good season but not a great one. Manning, a four-time league Most Valuable Player who missed all of last season with a neck injury, gives the Broncos a chance at a great season — certainly a better chance than the Broncos believed they would have had with Tebow.

The Broncos have declined to comment until Manning's contract, which was still being completed Monday, is finished. The Denver Post reported that the deal could be for as many as five years and as much as $90 million, although the amount of guaranteed money, and what provisions will be in place to protect the Broncos in case Manning's neck injury prevents him from playing, are unclear.

Manning, who will turn 36 on Saturday, was wooed to the Broncos by the only quarterback who will remain bigger than him in Denver, John Elway, who won two Super Bowls as a Bronco and is now the team's top football executive.

The Broncos, who finished 8-8 to win the AFC West last season, pushed for Manning as soon as he was released, and they were the first team to host him for a visit. Manning chose the Broncos over the San Francisco 49ers, who reached the NFC championship game last season, and the Tennessee Titans, who are in the same state where he became a college football icon, after he had eliminated a handful of other suitors.

Despite Denver's relative success last season, Elway was never sold on Tebow, whose immense personal popularity stemmed in equal parts from his ability to bring back the Broncos in games that appeared lost and the prominence of his Christian faith.

Despite winning seven of the first eight games he started last season, Tebow completed just 46.5 percent of his passes while making many of his biggest plays as a runner. Elway, on the job for little more than a year, wanted a more traditional quarterback and even occasionally struggled to appear excited as he watched Tebow lead the Broncos to a playoff berth last season.

While the Broncos worked on Manning's contract Monday, they also began to contemplate what to do with Tebow, who enjoyed tremendous fan support even as his play confounded football analysts. The Broncos will first try to trade him, although that might not be easy. There are teams with desperate quarterback needs, but Tebow's unorthodox style of play will likely limit interest.

Tebow was drafted in the first round two years ago by Josh McDaniels, who was then Denver's coach, to the surprise of many around the league who thought he should have gone much later. In a trade, Tebow is not expected to draw anything close to a first-round draft pick in return, but several teams may be interested in acquiring him in large part because he is a fan favorite.

The Jacksonville Jaguars and the Miami Dolphins, both of whom have struggled to draw fans recently, could be targets, but each team recently added a quarterback.

The Jaguars' new owner, Shahid Khan, has said that he would have drafted Tebow if he owned the Jaguars when Tebow, who played high school football in the Jacksonville area, was coming out of the University of Florida in 2010. The Jaguars, though, drafted quarterback Blaine Gabbert last year and last week signed Chad Henne as a free agent.

''We won't comment on players who are not members of the Jaguars organization," Khan said in a statement. "But I would like to wish Peyton Manning the very best in the AFC West."

Miami, which met with 49ers quarterback Alex Smith on Sunday, also made a failed bid for Manning, then signed David Garrard on Monday.

The Titans' owner, Bud Adams, who had initiated the Titans' pursuit of Manning, said in a statement Monday that he was disappointed in Manning's decision because he thought Tennessee would be a perfect fit for him.

Tebow's popularity among fans may work against him, too. Teams may be reluctant to face what the Broncos did last season — managing a polarizing player whose fans demanded he play, even if his football skills did not match up with the team's needs. If the Broncos fail to find a trade partner, they might keep him on the roster with a small package of plays designed to take advantage of his running ability or they could release him.

In Manning, Elway has a quarterback much more like himself. Manning, who won one Super Bowl with the Colts, has been rehabilitating furiously from an injury that many believed could end his career.

While his arm strength is not believed to have entirely returned yet, he passed a physical given by the Broncos and he threw well in a workout for them Friday. If healthy, he offers the Broncos something they have not had since Elway — a dominant quarterback. Manning completed 66.3 percent of his passes in 2010 and threw for 4,700 yards and 33 touchdowns with an injury-depleted offense.

In 14 seasons for the Colts, Manning threw for 54,828 yards and 399 touchdowns. In 11 of his 13 active seasons, the Colts won at least 10 games.

Elway, who had a prior friendly relationship with Manning and with whom Manning will be able to relate as an elite quarterback, was a critical element in swaying him to a team that had seemed like a long shot to land him when the chase first began.

Manning's decision should also unleash a series of moves around the league. Manning joins a team that finished first in rushing last season, although Tebow contributed heavily to that. It has young receivers like Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker and a solid offensive line. But Elway could choose to bring in Manning's longtime center, Jeff Saturday.

The 49ers will try to mend their relationship with Smith, with whom they were negotiating a new contract before their flirtation with Manning and is now apparently piqued. Whichever team does not sign him will again be left needing a quarterback.

The Titans' entire offseason plan was based on Adams' desire for Manning. That caused them to miss out on the chase for defensive end Mario Williams, among others.

And some other team might wind up with Tebow, the quarterback who once inspired the ardor of Broncos fans, until he was replaced by one who may inspire even more.

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