August 21, 2017

Old Quarterback, New World: Peyton Thanks Frank

One of the first people Peyton Manning acknowledged upon being introduced as the new quarterback for the Denver Broncos on Tuesday was a man most football fans don’t remember and might be only vaguely familiar to a few basketball fans.

Frank Tripucka played for the Broncos from the inaugural AFL season of 1960 through 1963 after a checkered career in Canada and unsuccessful attempts in the NFL following an All-American career at Notre Dame.  Tripucka, whose son Kelly later became a basketball star for the Fighting Irish and an NBA All-Star, enjoyed his best pro seasons with the Broncos including throwing for more than 3,000 yards and 24 touchdowns (and 34 interceptions!) in 1960.  In his four years in Denver Frank wore #18 and the Broncos retired the jersey when Tripucka galloped off into the Rockies in 1964.

But Frank’s no fool.  He said last week that it’s OK with him if the Broncos wanted to un-mothball his jersey if it would make Mr. Manning happy and, sure enough, Peyton is now a Bronco with a spiffy new #18 sweater and the NFL landscape has shifted dramatically.

Was it all about the jersey, Peyton?  Certainly not.  Much of it had to also be that even a stud horse like Peyton Manning gets goo-goo eyes when the man who, 30 years ago, was supposed to be a great Indianapolis Colts quarterback before conniving his way to the Broncos, John Elway, is courting you.  What can Elway impart upon Manning?  Maybe how to keep winning, specifically Super Bowls, in his late 30s which is what #7 did for Denver by capturing Lombardi Trophies at age 37 and 38 after three failures in his young, wild, Terrell Davis-less early years.

Actually, this geriatric quarterback concept is par for the course in Denver.  Manning turns 36 this week and, before Peyton and Elway there was Craig Morton who was 34 when he led the Broncos to their first ever Super Bowl during the 1977 season.  Morton wore #7 for his six seasons in Denver and then Elway took that jersey over in 1983 and now both of those guys have their name by that number in Denver’s Ring of Honor.  See?  Everyone wins when you share!

And Tripucka, by the way, was 36 in his first and best year in Denver.  It’s like it’s all part of some strange, master plan that only works in Denver for certain football Samurai and not mere pigskin mortals like Charley Johnson, Steve Ramsey, Brian Griese, Jake Plummer, Jay Cutler, Kyle Orton or, (gulp) Tim Tebow.   We’ll get back to him.

Can Peyton still play?  And if so, can he play in the snow, wind and cold of Colorado after spending 13 seasons in the indoor comforts of Indianapolis?  Come November, Mr. Manning will likely have a greater respect for Tom Brady, Brett Favre, Fran Tarkenton, Jack Frost and all those who ply their trade under the elements.  Denver owner Pat Bowlen is investing $96 million that when it comes to football Peyton won’t care if there’s snow, sleet, rain or the ghost of Rod Smith in the huddle, he’ll just get it done.

No one knows for certain if Manning’s body is or will be completely OK but even if he’s 100% he needs to have a team around him and maybe he does.  The Broncos have a decent defense with young players like Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil, a good running back in Willis McGahee and a very respectable receiving corps in Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Eddie Royal and a very good coach in John Fox.  And Denver is suddenly a place other players might want to gravitate toward.  There’s already talk that Jeff Saturday, Dallas Clark and Brandon Stokely – all members of the #18 fan club – are considering moving West and while those guys aren’t exactly game-changers the only thing a star quarterback likes more than money are guys with whom he’s familiar.

And the only people who love football more than beer drinkers are gamblers (those two groups don’t crossover, do they?) as Las Vegas has already put Denver at 10-1 to win the Super Bowl when, way back in the Tim Tebow days of last weekend, they were 70-1.  If Vegas believes, shouldn’t we all?

And what is Tim Tebow believing right now?  We’re sure his faith is not broken but his spirit must be a tad shaken.  The Broncos have said they plan to pursue a trade for their former run-first, pray-second, pass-third starting quarterback and several teams have expressed interest.  No matter where Tebow goes he will certainly be a backup and/or asked to become a fullback or tight end, which could be very cool and very smart because the kid is a hell of a football player.  But maybe he should just stay in Denver.  Why not?  He’d be a huge distraction, OK, but if there’s one team that has gotten used to media hordes it’s Denver.  Imagine Tebow learning at Manning’s elbow, working on his throwing mechanics from the safety of the shadows and still getting on the field for a few snaps each game as a receiver or ball carrier.  It would be thrilling, it would be inspiring, it would be fun and it might be a damn good football move for the Broncos to hang onto their best overall player (that’s right) while also getting possibly the league’s best overall player.  Tebow probably wouldn’t go for it even if the Broncos did but imagine if old man Manning goes down for a few games this fall, who would you rather have coming off the bench?

OK, no way.  I know.  The clock has expired on Tebow Time in Denver and now the Rockies instead smile upon Old Man Touchdown.  Tebow will land on his feet and – after yet another interception – probably on his head and his ass, too – with the Dolphins, Jaguars, Ringling Bros, or some such outfit.  Peyton and Denver will win more games without him but while the steady climb of success is satisfying will it be more fun than the rollercoaster of Tebowmania?  In Denver, yes.  But for the rest of us, anything that keeps Sundays interesting is good for football.  And most of us aren’t Broncos fans.  Still aren’t.  Though all Colts do dream of being Broncos, don’t they?