Nancy Armour / USA Today
JERSEY CITY — One of the best plays John Elway ever made for the Denver Broncos came long after he retired.
And like all those fourth-quarter comebacks years earlier, it was something only Elway could have pulled off.
Persuading Peyton Manning to come to Denver in March 2012, then turning around a few days later and trading Tim Tebow, was absolutely the right thing to do if the Broncos were to have a legitimate shot at the Super Bowl. But with lingering doubts about Manning's health and Tebowmania in full fever, Elway risked alienating Broncos fans with his gambles.
In fact, had it been anyone but their beloved No. 7 pulling the trigger on the deals, no way would Denver fans have gone along with it.
"I couldn't say somebody else could have … did that," Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas said Thursday. "Somebody probably would have said something. That's Tebow. He won a national championship in college, he's a great guy, everybody loves him.
"But when that happened, it wasn't nothing you really were going to say because it was Elway."
Two years later, all that angst seems pretty silly.
Manning has the Broncos in the Super Bowl and is playing better than ever. After a spectacular flameout with the Jets, Tebow is out of professional football and is an analyst with ESPN. The closest he'll come to Sunday's Super Bowl is as a guest for Good Morning America's preview of the big game Friday.
"Tim's a great guy and we won a lot of ball games with him," said Broncos offensive guard Zane Beadles, who has protected both Tebow and Manning. "But you can't pass up an opportunity with someone like Peyton."
Truth be told, Tebow's days in Denver were numbered long before Manning arrived.
Now, before you start howling, go look at the numbers. In three seasons, Tebow had a completion rate of just under 48 percent, half as many interceptions (nine) as touchdowns (17), and 41 – yes, 41 – sacks.
And that was in option-style system, which make the most of his abilities.
Yes, Tebow took the Broncos to the playoffs in 2011, beating the Pittsburgh Steelers on the first play of overtime with an 80-yard touchdown pass to Thomas. But his appeal was always rooted as much in who he was off the field as what he did on it.
People were fascinated by Tebow's faith – he was the country's most famous virgin until Lolo Jones came along – and impressed with his boy-next-door personality. That his last name could be used as a verb, as in "Tebowing," his signature celebratory gesture of kneeling down on one knee and bowing his head as if in prayer, only added to his cool.
"It was a tough situation," Elway said then. "There are Tebow fans and there are Broncos fans. My responsibility is to the Broncos fans, and my responsibility is to (owner) Pat Bowlen and what he wants to do, and that's win championships. I base all my decisions on that.
"It's difficult not to get personal, because every kid that comes in, it's his dream to play," he added. "But the bottom line is, my responsibility that Pat's given me, is to give him the best opportunity to hoist that trophy."
Though Manning was a four-time MVP who'd already won one Super Bowl and taken the Indianapolis Colts to another, there were risks in handing him the keys to the Broncos franchise, too. No one knew if he'd return to his old form after the neck surgery that cost him the 2011 season and threatened his career.
But keeping Tebow around as an insurance policy didn't make sense, either. With one of the best pure passers in the game now running the Broncos offense, Tebow was simply not a good fit in Denver, even as a backup.
Elway had to part ways with Tebow, for Tebow's own good and that of the Broncos.
"We couldn't have two different offenses," Elway said at the time. "We couldn't have a backup quarterback with a totally different offense. We wanted to get back to where everyone was learning the same offense."
Elway never has to worry about his legacy in Denver. Winning two Super Bowls and taking the Broncos to three more during his Hall of Fame playing career took care of that.
But by getting Manning, and dumping Tebow, Elway set the Broncos on a bold new path. It may not be as thrilling as "The Drive," but it could be just as gratifying.
"In in my position now it's kind of trying to stay two steps ahead and make decisions on what we have to do in the future," Elway said at Super Bowl media day on Tuesday. "Hopefully they're the right ones."
So far, they are.