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Denver’s Super Bowl hopes begin and end with No. 18
"Plan B? I don't have a Plan B. We're going with Plan A."
Those were the words uttered by Denver Broncos executive vice president John Elway at Peyton Manning’s introductory press conference on March 20. Plan A is to hand the team over to Manning and ride his right arm to the Super Bowl.
That may seem like a lot to ask of Manning, who turned 36 years old a couple of days ago and last played in a NFL game in January 2011. Manning, however, made it clear he and Elway are on the same page as to why he chose Denver over the other teams interested in him, namely San Francisco and Tennessee.
"I'm very excited to begin the next chapter of my playing career with the Denver Broncos," Manning said. "This truly is a special football environment, and I'm glad to be a part of it. ... I'm thrilled to be here. I'm looking forward to meeting my new teammates, and doing whatever I can to help this franchise win another Super Bowl."
On the surface, having Manning, the four-time NFL MVP and future Hall of Famer, as your Plan A is a nice position to be in and no one can fault Denver owner Pat Bowlen, Elway or general manager Brian Xanders for going all in with No. 18.
That was certainly the strategy employed by Indianapolis when the Colts took Manning with the first pick of the 1998 NFL Draft. Manning was immediately handed the starting job in Week 1 of his rookie season and he never relinquished it.
In Manning's 13 seasons as the Colts’ starting quarterback, he led the team to 150 wins (including playoffs), eight divisional titles, two AFC crowns and a win in Super Bowl XLI in 2007. He also didn’t miss a single game, playing in 227 in a row including playoffs, basically making the Colts’ backup quarterback nothing more than a hat-wearing, clipboard holder on the sidelines.
That was until 2011, when a neck injury finally did to Manning what opposing defenses were never able to do – knock him out of the game. For the first time since the final game of the 1997 season, the Colts had to go to Plan B at quarterback.
In Week 1 against Houston that was 38-year-old Kerry Collins. Three weeks later after Collins was sidelined by a concussion, the Colts turned to Curtis Painter, their sixth-round pick in the 2009 draft. Eight losses later, Dan Orlovsky, who was originally drafted by Detroit in the fifth-round of the 2005 draft, took over the reigns for the rest of season.
Collectively, the trio led the Colts to a 2-14 record, the worst in the NFL. In early January, Colts owner Jim Irsay fired head coach Jim Caldwell, vice chairman Bill Polian, vice president/general manager Chris Polian and the vast majority of the coaching staff in the first phase of what has become an extreme makeover of one of the league’s most successful franchises since the arrival of Manning in 1998.
After hiring Chuck Pagano as the Colts’ new head coach and installing Ryan Grigson as the new general manager, Irsay moved on to reconstructing the roster first by parting ways with Manning on March 7 and two days later cutting several other long-time Colts, including running back Joseph Addai, linebacker Gary Brackett and tight end Dallas Clark.
The Colts have since been active in free agency, re-signing veteran wide receiver Reggie Wayne and several other players, but the most significant acquisition will come on April 26.
That’s when the Colts, just as they did in 1998, plan on taking their next franchise quarterback, either Stanford’s Andrew Luck or Baylor’s Robert Griffin III, with the first pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. Whether or not they end up starting right away like Manning did, whoever the Colts end up selecting becomes their new Plan A.
In Denver, the current Plan A is fully in place, secured by the five-year, $96 million contract Manning signed with his new team, and in motion. Since Manning’s introduction, the Broncos have made several other moves, including adding wide receiver Andre Caldwell and tight ends Joel Dreessen and Jacob Tamme, a former Colts teammate, to the offense.
As for Plan B? Initially, Plan B was expected to be Tim Tebow, who replaced Kyle Orton as the Broncos’ starting quarterback after a 1-4 start to the 2011 season. With Tebow under center, the Broncos went 8-5 the rest of the way, winning the AFC West title and defeating the Steelers in the Wildcard round of the playoffs.
However, Tebow’s future in Denver was immediately placed in doubt when news broke that Manning would be signing with the Broncos. And it was sealed the day after the press conference when Elway traded Tebow and a seventh-round pick in the upcoming draft to the Jets for New York’s fourth- and sixth-round picks.
So with no Tebow, who is Manning’s backup? It’s not Orton, who earlier this month signed a three-year deal with Dallas after finishing last season with Kansas City.
No, Manning’s backup is none other than Caleb Hanie. Hanie signed as a free agent with Denver after three seasons with the Bears. An undrafted free agent out of Colorado State, Hanie went 0-4 filling in for an injured Jay Cutler last season. In those four games, Hanie completed 50 percent of his passes with three touchdowns and nine interceptions.
For all the criticism of Tebow’s passing ability and the doubts raised about him developing into a successful NFL quarterback, his numbers are considerably better than Hanie’s. Especially when it comes to the most important category – wins. Tebow is 9-7 in his career as a starter. Hanie is still looking for his first NFL win.
Granted, opportunity plays a big part into a quarterback’s statistics, and Tebow, a first-round pick in 2009, has a significant advantage over Hanie in that respect. Regardless it doesn’t change the reality of the Broncos’ backup quarterback situation. It could have been Tebow, but instead the front office has decided to go with Hanie. Showing once again, that there is no Plan B.
Just like the Colts did in 1998, the Broncos are pinning all of their hopes on Manning. Back then, Manning was 22 and had just finished his career at the University of Tennessee. Now, Manning is 36 years old, has already played in 228 NFL games, has had three different neck surgeries in less than two years and hasn’t been under center in a game since January 2011.
In Indianapolis, Plan A, whether it ends up being Luck or Griffin, is about the future. In Denver, Plan A is all about the present as Manning himself made clear at his press conference.
"I realize I don't have 14 years left, by any means," Manning said. "This isn't something where I'm just building a foundation to do something in two years or three years. This is a ‘now’ situation. We're going to do whatever we can to win right now. That's all I'm thinking about right now."
It’s clearly Super Bowl or bust for the Broncos with Manning leading the way. Everyone from Bowlen to Elway to Xanders to the players is on board with Plan A, which rests largely on the shoulders of No. 18.
“I believe that he's got a lot of great football left in him,” Elway said of his new QB. Broncos fans sure hope he’s right because, just as he said, “I don’t have a Plan B.”
— by Mark Ross, published on March 30, 2012