Manning deal a fearless play by Elway

As Tebowmania grew last season into a full-blown phenomenon, John Elway’s obvious indifference to his pop-icon quarterback never seemed to change. Some interpreted this as a sign that Elway’s personnel opinions were not driven by results — Denver was winning games, after all — as much as his ego and some weird sense of rivalry with Tim Tebow, who was suddenly more popular than Mr. Bronco himself.

It wouldn’t be the first time a Hall of Fame athlete-turned-executive had trouble separating roles. As we’ve seen over and over again, greatness as a player has no relationship with someone’s ability to build a team.

But in landing Peyton Manning as the Denver Broncos’ new quarterback, Elway has proven to be as shrewd and gutsy an executive as he was a quarterback. We remember Elway at his best in the fourth quarter, backed up to his own goal line, needing to go the length of the field, in situations that required a blend of intelligence and risk.

And no matter how this ultimately turns out for the Broncos, no matter how many more years Manning can last or how healthy he’ll be, Elway drew on his legacy as a player without allowing it to interfere with his legacy as an executive. He thought big, went bold and staked his reputation as a team-builder on one of the few players of any era whose accomplishments could match his own.

If the Broncos compete for Super Bowls, Manning will get the credit. If the experiment blows up for whatever reason, Elway will get the blame. And for an icon like Elway to take that kind of chance is impressive because, in many ways, it would be so much easier not to.

Elway clearly didn’t believe in Tebow as the Broncos’ franchise quarterback; that much was evident last year given his measured praise and refusal to commit to him as the long-term starter. The simplest play for Elway was to let Tebow fail (or succeed, perhaps) on his own. One way or another, it probably would have worked itself out by the end of next season.

But Elway wasn’t interested in waiting. He didn’t want another year of debating whether you can win a Super Bowl with a quarterback who completed 47 percent of his passes last season. He didn’t want to build an offense around Tebow’s skills, which is what Tebow demands if he’s going to be the ultimate answer. Elway made a football decision, and he made it without regard to its popularity.

If Tebow came back next year, showed little improvement as a passer and the Broncos missed the playoffs, Elway would be largely off the hook. Hey, he stuck with a guy who won the AFC West last year and won a playoff game, and it just didn’t work out. That’s what the majority of Broncos fans would say, and they wouldn’t blame Elway one bit for that.

But Manning presented a window of opportunity to do what Elway wanted to do all along, which is to ship Tebow (and the circus that surrounds him) out of town and get on with the process of building a team around an elite passer.

Some Broncos fans may not like that reality, especially after Tebow led Denver to its first playoff win in six years. But this isn’t about making the playoffs for Elway; it’s about competing with the Patriots. And last time the Broncos tried that, they were exposed as fraudulent contenders to the tune of 45-10.

Nobody knows for sure what Manning is capable of physically, especially under the duress of an NFL season. But if he’s healthy enough to play to his standard, there’s no debate: Manning gives the Broncos a better chance to win than Tebow. Today, tomorrow and for as long as he can play.

Which is really the only justification Elway needs to make this move, regardless of his opinion of Tebow. Yes, it’s a roll of the dice, but it’s a gamble on greatness. Manning has a chance to the take the Broncos to a different level as a franchise, especially in the winnable AFC West. If he doesn’t and Denver has to find a new quarterback to start over, well, this is about winning Super Bowls. Feel free to call me when Tebow wins his.

For a team vice president who didn’t believe in Tebow, Manning was the perfect escape hatch for Elway. In his role as Broncos icon, bringing in Manning is proof that Elway doesn’t feel threatened by a true peer. This was the perfect move at the perfect time, and it will probably cement him as one of the NFL’s smartest executives. Denver is big enough for two of the best quarterbacks in football history. Credit Elway for making it happen.