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Peyton Manning: Health, Not Performance, Key to Denver Broncos QB's Preseason

CHICAGO, IL - AUGUST 09:  Peyton Manning #18 of the Denver Broncos looks for a receiver against the Chicago Bears during a preseason game at Soldier Field on August 9, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Tyler ConwayFeatured ColumnistAugust 17, 2012

It's indisputable that John Elway, Denver Broncos executive vice president of football operations, and team ownership took a massive risk jettisoning incumbent quarterback Tim Tebow in favor of signing 36-year-old Peyton Manning to a five-year, $96 million contract this past March.

That much is apparent anytime a football organization spends near the nine-digit mark on a player.

But Broncos management risked alienating the team's fans by trading Tebow, a nationally adored (or hated, depending on your perspective) celebrity who led the Broncos on a magical 11-game run, including six game-winning drives, during the 2011-12 season.

If Tebow shines with the New York Jets while Manning's run in Denver proves to be nothing but a redux of Joe Montana's ill-fated two-year tenure with the Kansas City Chiefs, it would be disastrous from both football and public-relations standpoints.

But for Manning, his health risk is far greater than any financial or public-relations risk taken by the organization.

The fact that the 11-time Pro Bowler has undergone four neck surgeries over the past two years seems overwrought at this point—until you remember that it's four neck surgeries over two years.

For a quarterback, the neck is the most essential non-arm part of the body. Without a fully mobile neck, a quarterback would be unable to sense backside pressure and could even miss some open receivers—especially a signal-caller like Manning, whose immobility leaves him susceptible to a ton of hits, some of which Manning takes purposely to open up receivers.

That's why, for the first time since Manning's rookie season, the preseason is vital to his career.

Not from a performance standpoint, as No. 18 will go into the opener as Denver's starter even if he spends the rest of the preseason throwing the ball backwards.

But Manning must walk out of the tunnel for the Broncos' Sunday Night Football matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sept. 9 completely healthy and 100-percent confident that his neck will hold up.

According to Elway, Manning is already most of the way there (via USA Today):

He's throwing the post route and everything well. I went back and looked at film from 2010 and 2009 to get a comparison of Peyton, and he looks to me to be the same guy throwing now that he was then.

The ball is coming out quicker all the time the more and more time he gets with the offense and getting to know all his receivers and tight ends...That's always been his style. He's never been the Nolan Ryan of quarterbacks anyway. He's always thrown the ball with great anticipation and touch.

If Elway is correct and Manning can spend the rest of his preseason working on chemistry with receivers instead of worrying about his neck, then team management can fall asleep at night knowing it made the right football decision.

It doesn't take a quantum physicist to figure out Manning's best days are behind him as a quarterback. But if Manning is healthy, he'll unarguably be better than Tebow.

For all of his late-game heroics, Tebow was a below-average quarterback last season by every objective statistical measure. His 46.5 completion percentage is a full 11 percent worse than Manning's worst professional season, and Manning has never averaged a yards-per-attempt as low as Tebow's 6.38 rate from last season.

Regardless, the Broncos didn't possibly mortgage the franchise's future and dole out $96 million for Manning to be better than 2011 Tebow. Elway could have brought Kyle Orton back for one-96th of the price and gotten that result.

Denver is paying a Peyton Manning price, so they damn well expect a Peyton Manning performance.

But, as is the case for the rest of his career, Manning will need to pass the health question before we even consider the performance one.

That process begins by getting through this preseason.

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