- Howard Bryant, ESPN Senior Writer
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In 1972, following his performance in the first of the three "The Godfather" movies, Al Pacino became a superstar. A quarter-century later, when the legendary film trilogy was released in a DVD box set, Pacino gave a riveting interview about the process by which he landed the role of Michael Corleone, one of the most iconic characters in screen history.
Pacino talked about how the studio hadn't wanted him in the role. Paramount wanted Ryan O'Neal, James Caan, Martin Sheen or Robert Redford ahead of him. Pacino said he thought about quitting because of the enormous, smothering negativity, said it was difficult to do good work knowing the studio heads did not believe in him.
"I remember saying I don't respond well to being around where I'm not wanted," Pacino said. Only the faith and tenacity of the director, Francis Ford Coppola, kept him in the role, and the film wound up making Hollywood history.
On Monday, John Elway, the studio-head equivalent of the Denver Broncos, found his Redford, someone who looks the part of a starting quarterback and is already a box-office smash. Peyton Manning will replace Tim Tebow in the Broncos' starring role this fall. Manning hasn't played in a year, and already Elway is being lauded as the big winner for executing such a bold masterstroke. The reasoning is perfectly sound: If there is a chance to acquire a Super Bowl-winning, four-time MVP who has thrown for more than 50,000 yards and who might just be the greatest pure quarterback of all time, it must be done.
Maybe Tebow will become Pacino one day and be a big star in New York, but that day is not today. For all the excitement, all the comebacks, all the attention and the fan interest Tebow generated last season, Elway never seemed to believe in him as a legitimate, championship-level NFL quarterback. By acquiring Manning, it's clear Elway doesn't believe Tebow will become one anytime soon. And by acquiring Tebow on Wednesday, it's clear that neither Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum nor coach Rex Ryan are quite ready to believe it, either. Tebow will go to New York as the backup to Mark Sanchez, not the starter.
However, though it may not seem to be the case today, Tebow emerges from this week's developments as a winner, too, because at least he is now liberated from playing in a place where his bosses did not want him. If Tebow is the player and winner his supporters believe him to be, the Jets can take the time to find in him what Elway did not. In that sense, arriving in New York without the pressure of being No. 1 is exactly what Tebow needs for a fresh start.
Do not believe for a minute that landing Manning in Denver was only about Manning. It wasn't. It was also a severe indictment of the shaky incumbent who won some hearts and minds and imaginations by making the Broncos the surprise story of 2011 but who never convinced Elway (who knows a little bit about stardom) that he is a true leading man.
While the argument can be made that the Broncos couldn't and shouldn't have resisted the chance to score Manning under any circumstances, his availability gave Elway the opportunity to finally send the message in the clearest of terms that he does not believe in the ability of Tebow to be a front-line NFL quarterback. He does not believe enough in Tebow's role in winning football games for a team that had no spark and no buzz and no direction until he took over the starting job. Elway does not value Tebow's contributions to the Broncos' playoff surge, or that the 80-yard touchdown pass in overtime against the Steelers in the playoffs, the big-moment big play, was enough to mute the criticism of Tebow's game once and for all.
Most importantly, Elway does not buy the special rhetoric that, for Tebow's fervent supporters, was always the ultimate trump card: Winning, no matter how it is achieved, is the most important statistic.
Tebow now knows for sure that Elway believes in something else that winning could never overcome: the two-completion game against the Chiefs, the 46.5 percent completion percentage on the season, the eight games of the 11 he started in which he passed for fewer than 200 yards, the way his team's formidable defense was on the field constantly because Tebow couldn't smell a first down for the first three quarters of a game, the way Tebow looks -- as though he is reading Sanskrit -- when he drops back and sees zone coverage. Elway believes much more in the need for a quarterback to be able to read a defense, to throw a professional, tight spiral and to master the three-, five- and seven-step drops far more than he believes in the hope that there will be a Marion Barber on the other sideline to blow a big game. Elway believes that the league will solve Tebow long before Tebow solves the league.
Elway never bought in. The final scores of Tebow's games were enough to create a phenomenon elsewhere, but not enough for the legend who played the position for the Broncos in five Super Bowls. When the season ended, Elway was tepid about Tebow's future. At no point during the season or after the Broncos' blowout loss to the Patriots in the playoffs did Elway definitively say, Tim Tebow is my quarterback. He said instead that Tebow had earned the right to open training camp as the starter, which is the same as saying he was willing to let the preseason determine who would begin the 2012 opener under center -- another indication that Elway either had no illusions about Tebow in 2011 or was still a decided non-believer.
Today, there really is only one person in the NFL who has been committed to Tebow's success in the way that Coppola believed in Pacino, one person willing to risk his standing for him; and it is not Rex Ryan, at least not yet. It is Josh McDaniels, who drafted Tebow in the first round when he coached the Broncos. McDaniels is back with the Patriots, who in the very early stages of Tebow's sudden availability this week reportedly were among the teams that might be interested in trading for him. Now, Tebow will face McDaniels twice a year in the AFC East.
The rest of Denver's top football officials -- including Elway and John Fox, the head coach who had Tebow third on the depth chart to end training camp last summer -- tolerated him, even though Tebow made them money, won them games, changed the entire rhythm of the season and led them to the playoffs despite the negativity.
Maybe Tebow can't play and Elway knows it. Maybe there were no trade offers out there for him as a starter, which would indicate that everyone else in the league knows it, too. But it is undeniable that without Tebow, Denver was listless, nondescript, flagging. The team was uninteresting in the early part of the 2011 season, and it had a young defensive core that hadn't yet found its way. The Broncos were not national news until Tebow made them entertaining, made them hot -- it would make for good reading for the Broncos' marketing people to reveal how much additional revenue Tebow generated in his 11 starts -- and dangerous. All of Tebow's shortcomings as a traditional quarterback did not prevent him from creating a serious matchup problem for every opponent.
There isn't any reason he can't have a similar impact on the Jets, even in a more limited role as a specialist in the Wildcat formation and playing behind Sanchez.
An argument can also be made that without Tebow's erratic electricity, Manning might not have had Denver on his list, for the pre-Tebow Broncos weren't even showing much promise, never mind championship potential. It was only after Tebow took over as starter that the Broncos emerged, accompanied by the ongoing national debate about whether his presence was helping (the comebacks, the critically-timed completions, the leadership) or hurting (with Denver's defense giving up less than 15 points a game during one stretch, a better quarterback wouldn't have needed to stage fourth-quarter rallies); and now, with Manning, that defense can thrive, free of being on the field constantly following Tebow's instant three-and-out series).
Now, Tebow will bring Tebowmania to New York, a city that readily embraces that sort of phenomenon (see: Linsanity). He is free, and armed now with an athlete's greatest motivation: the desire to prove to everyone who underestimated him that they were wrong.
Manning won. Elway won. And now Tebow can win, too, for his next team will know what it is getting at the NFL level. He will be going to a place interested in his success, in what he can do instead of what he can't.
First, however, he will need someone who believes, someone he once had in McDaniels and might eventually find in Ryan. Pacino had Coppola in his corner, an advantage Tim Tebow never had with John Elway.
One way to look at Peyton Manning's arrival in Denver: It's a dark cloud for Tim Tebow. Another way: It means he can finally get out from under John Elway's negativity.