If you have the chance to upgrade from Tim Tebow to Peyton Manning as your quarterback, and probably pick up a late-round draft pick in the process, then you do it 10 out of 10 times. But make no mistake, this is still a gamble.
Few things are guaranteed in the NFL, and for a 36-year-old quarterback -- Manning's birthday is Saturday -- coming off four neck surgeries who has not thrown a meaningful pass since January 2011, that's especially true. Denver is gambling that Manning will be worth around $20 million a year, gambling that he stays healthy and avoids further neck injury, and gambling that he will return at close to the level of the Hall of Fame quarterback we grew used to watching before he missed all of last season.
This is a move that is truly successful only if it results in a championship. That's how it will be measured. Manning wants another ring. John Elway wants another ring, this time as an executive, and when you land one of the greatest passers in the history of the game, even at an advanced stage of his career, the payoff comes in Super Bowls and not much else.
So the question is, after 14 years in Indianapolis with just one title, can Manning get another in this window of three-to-five years ahead of him, health permitting? History would say that's easier said than done. Only four quarterbacks have won a Super Bowl over the age of 36 -- Elway did it twice (at 37 and 38), with Johnny Unitas (37) and Jim Plunkett (36) the others to accomplish this feat. So Elway knows from a unique perspective exactly what Manning is up against, yet that didn't deter Elway from this pursuit of one of the greatest no-brainers of all time.
It won't be easy. Manning is by no means out of place on any list adjacent to Unitas and Elway, but again, this is someone who required repeated procedures and excessive recovery time. No one, not even Manning, knows exactly how his body will respond to the crushing blows so commonplace every Sunday. Time catches up to us all.
That step up into the pocket is just a twitch slower. The release not quite as lightning-quick as before. Thirty-six is by no means over the hill for a quarterback in today's game, but the closer one creeps to 40, the more likely he is to experience some diminishing returns. Even the great Joe Montana, at age 37 and 38 with the Chiefs, came up just short of his goal, falling in the AFC Championship Game (worth noting that Montana threw just 29 touchdowns in two years with the Chiefs).
Dan Marino's TD-INT ratio in his final three seasons (ages 36 to 38) was 51-43; in three prior seasons that ratio was 71-41. Warren Moon, another recent Hall of Fame passer, played until he was 44 and threw for 4,000 yards at age 39, but he also posted a passer rating better than 85 just once after age 36. Brett Favre had what I'd consider his greatest season ever in 2010, at age 40, but that was sandwiched between one mundane season and one horrific season that finally brought his career to a more ignoble end.
And, ask anyone who was around to see the end for Johnny U, trading in the horseshoe for the lightning bolt, how sad it was to watch his broken body betray him at the end, or to watch Joe Namath hobble around at the end, and you know how bad it can get for older quarterbacks. I'm not suggesting Manning and the Broncos are in for anything that dramatic, only pointing out that far more passers have tried to chase the ultimate glory at this age and failed, than have actually ended the season with the Lombardi Trophy in hand.
It's a calculated risk, but one the Broncos had to make. And in the AFC West, the Broncos won't need Manning to be Peyton Version 2004 in order to win the division and be primed for playoff success. Sure, cutting down on the 32 interceptions from Manning's past two seasons would be great. And yes, Manning has been sublime in a dome (111 games, 98.7 passer rating, 230 to 99 TD-INT ratio) and a little more human outdoors (97 games, 90.8 rating, 169 to 99). It's also worth noting that he's played in just eight regular season games in his career that were deemed to have had "precipitation," though he also won his only Super Bowl on a slick and rainy Miami winter night.
But merely the leadership, steady hand and ability to change the game at the line of scrimmage and make those around him better, should be enough for this outfit, especially after the zany ups and downs of Tebow Time. Manning doesn't need to be an MVP if the offensive line performs as it did a year ago. The running game remains powerful and that defense continues to make some strides and get after the opposing quarterback.
Elway is betting that, even at 2012 prices, Manning can duplicate in the Mile High City what he managed to do twice no less. The odds may be stacked against them. But would you count out the tandem of Elway and Manning?
Yeah, me neither.