Predicting the long-term effects of a crazy week in football
Every week, our panel of sports fans discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation,Hampton Stevens (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), Jake Simpson (writer, The Atlantic), and Patrick Hruby (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic) talk about Peyton Manning's trade to the Denver Broncos, which led to Tim Tebow going to the New York Jets.
So... Let me guess what we're talking about this week. Hmm... Spring Training is heating up. March Madness moves into full freakout this weekend, whittling the Sweet 16 to a Final Four. The NBA's "short" season is lumbering towards the homestretch. Maybe we should talk about Oklahoma City Thunder basketball. No? Um... Boxing? Mixed Martial Arts? The US swim team's chances of taking gold this summer in London?
Pffft. Yeah, right. Everyone knows there's no off-season for talking about the NFL, and this week the Neverending Football League is dominating headlines as per usual with a gargantuan quarterback shuffle. Peyton Manning announced that he is bringing his glittering resume and murky medical condition to Denver, signing a very optimistic five-year deal for $96 million.
Manning, who made it plain in Indy that he wanted no part of tutoring Andrew Luck, wasn't about to play for Denver with Tim Tebow around. The elderly former Colt doesn't need a 24-year-old quirky phenom and his zealot fans breathing down that surgically-repaired neck. That gave Broncos' GM John Elway all the excuse he needed to ship Tebow out of town.
Logically, the former Gator should have gone to Miami or Jacksonville—struggling teams in his home state. Instead, Tebow is bound for New York City, where he'll join Rex Ryan's Jets. Um... What? Barely two weeks ago, Gang Green gave a three-year, $40.5 million contract extension/vote of confidence to their current starting quarterback, Mark Sanchez. Now they bring in Tebow? Y4? Is he coming to town just to backup—and light a fire under—the often complacent Sanchez? Or does New York's new offensive coordinator Tony Sparano plan to use Tebow in the signature "wildcat" offense, a la Brad Smith?
How about it, fellas? Prognostication time. Are the Manning-led Broncos glory bound? Or did the team bet too much on Peyton's 36-year old neck? And what of the Jets? Who'll be under center when the season starts—and who'll be there when it ends? Here's my take: Denver meets the Jets in Super Bowl XLVII, and the entire mass-media industrial complex collapses on itself Metrodome-style from sheer weight of all the hype. Kidding. Manning won't last past the first sack by Tamba Hali.
The Peyton Manning signing seems pretty simple to me, Hampton. Future Hall of Fame QB signs lucrative deal with team good enough to contend for a title (don't sleep on them with that defense) with young receivers and a legendary VP of operations. And once Peyton came in, Tebow had to go.
The Tebow-to-Jets part, though... that fascinates me. Not just because of Tebow, who is now a darling of the same sports community as Jeremy Lin, Eli Manning, Derek Jeter, and Mariano Rivera (it's good to be in New York now, folks). But because of the staggering, ungodly amount of pressure on the flimsy shoulders of Mark Sanchez.
The Jets' QB has already endured media venom and widespread calls for his job because of his disappointing 2011 season. But think about his offseason for a minute. First, a bunch of his teammates went the anonymous-source route and bashed him in the press. Then he had to publicly make nice with perpetual malcontent Santonio Holmes. Seemingly pleased with his efforts, the Jets took themselves out of the Manning sweepstakes by handing Sanchez a three-year, $50 million extension that put him under contract for the next five years.
At that point, he had to be thinking: I'm set here, I'm the starting QB, management has faith in me, I have total job security. Now the Jets bring in the NFL's current fan and media favorite with an incalculable Q-Rating potential and will drop him in the lap of the biggest, rowdiest sports market in the country. What the hell can Sanchez be thinking. I'm fucked. How quickly will the fans turn on me and call for Tebow? Two games? A half? Will Rex Ryan be the best man at Tim Tebow's wedding? Seriously, I'm fucked.
Put it this way: No quarterback in the history of the NFL has played under as much fan and media pressure as Mark Sanchez will in 2012.
Whaddya know, whaddya say, Patrick? What struck you about the whole Manning/Tebow business?
What struck me? For starters, there's clearly a lot of Old Testament wrath left in the Big Commissioner in the Sky. Because Tim Tebow, New York Jet, and all of the inevitable angst and circus therein must be God's punishment upon Rex Ryan for taking his name in vain—specifically, in the egregiously vain context of snack food.
Okay. I kid. Tebow's move to New York fascinates me as well, but not because of any additional pressure he'll put on Mark Sanchez. After all, Sanchez already puts plenty of pressure on himself by being a mostly mediocre passer. Much like Tebow. Indeed, the question that interests me regarding pro football's most popular player is this: Will Tebow ever play quarterback, and only quarterback, again?
The history of talented collegiate option signal-callers in the NFL suggests otherwise. The league made Freddie Solomon and Antaawn Randle El into receivers. It turned Brian Mitchell into a kick returner and Scott Frost into a defensive back. It couldn't find a place for J.C. Watts or Charlie Ward -- both of them spectacular athletes—and all but snuffed out former Heisman Trophy winner Eric Crouch's passion for football. If Tebow shines with the Jets, it likely will be as a tight end, H-Back or Wildcat formation gadget player, as a bigger, stronger version of New England Patriots running back-cum-Swiss Army knife Danny Woodhead. Fact is, pro football is built around pocket passing; a team looking to maximize Tebow's unique strengths (and minimize his weaknesses) under center would have to remake its entire offense in risky and idiosyncratic fashion, from philosophy to play-calling to personnel.
Following the New York Giants' Super Bowl triumph, the Jets might be desperate to make a tabloid back page splash. But I doubt they're that desperate.
As for Manning, he ought to perform well in Denver—Joe Montana's mostly successful sojourn with the Kansas City Chiefs seems like a reasonable comparison. Of course, said performance will depend on his health, always a question mark for a quarterback his age, particularly one coming of multiple neck surgeries. Can Manning pull a John Elway and win a pair of Super Bowls in his relative football twilight? I doubt it. Not unless Denver can find another Terrell Davis, the running back who played a huge role in Elway's championship seasons.
Hmmm. Denver needs a powerful, reliable runner to take the pressure off an aging Manning. Maybe they should have kept Tebow, after all.