Peyton Manning is now officially a Bronco, and so Tim Tebow will soon head to a new locale to preach his gospel of incompetent quarterbacking and miraculous victories. It's a stark change for the defending AFC West champs' offensive identity, face of the franchise, and media image. But, beyond how the signing affects the Broncos, Manning and Tebow also represent two distinct concepts of how the NFL views itself: as an entity driven by all-consuming drama and detail-driven mastery.
The NFL is unmatched among sports leagues for how it creates and propagates its narratives. Every week is an event, with each slate of games full of SportsCenter-ready storylines no matter how compelling the quality of play might be on the field. In this past season, Tebowmania represented a sort of hyperbolic endpoint for that approach, with each one of his games turning into a Super Bowl-level event even if strategic analysis dictated they'd lose comfortably.
The game as it was played rarely mattered to Tebow coverage; he either engineered win with even-more-immeasurable intangibles or lost because the magic ran out (only to be resupplied when the Broncos won next). It was a Tebow picaresque, full of ridiculous digressions as our knight errant hero soldiered on through calamity and vanity on the way to becoming the people's champion the media already knew him to be. Even if fans didn’t believe he had magical powers, the improbability of his run made it a story worth following.
The narrative subsumed everything that might have otherwise made the game interesting. And yet that just made his story notable for a difference of degree, not kind. Throughout the 2011 season, the Eagles' hubristic fall from dream to nightmare, the 49ers' Jim Harbaugh-orchestrated turnaround, and the Jets'/Giants'/Patriots' Northeast primacy carved out their own spaces for long and winding storylines. The NFL manages to hold its considerable market share because of that popularity, and Tebow simply represented a specific bubble that’s now shrunken but not burst. He captivated audiences because of his aw-shucks demeanor, conservative moral uprightness, and winner’s reputation—by being a popular ideal of the American athlete—but he could not have exploited that situation without the NFL’s well-established ability to make its narratives attractive to as big an audience as possible. Tebow was ultimately just a very important, though ultimately replaceable, cog in that machine.
Manning has also been a large part of the league’s marketing apparatus, of course, especially in the past year with his “does he still have it?” neck injury and well-publicized tiffs with Colts brass. However, he’s best viewed as another hyperbolic football figure: a savant who understands that success is defined by the sport’s heap of minutiae. Coaches typically play this role, serving as top-down managers making sure every player knows his position’s responsibilities and expectations. While the simple fact that Manning plays on the field means he can’t have the offensive coordinator’s Panopticon-inspired survey of the grounds, that standing arguably gives him more total control of the game.
Unlike a coach, Manning gets to fiddle with the disparate parts of a play in real time. With his incessant audibling, Manning adjusts the roles of the offense on the fly, contorting each individual part of the whole however necessary to maximize its effectiveness. In football, that sort of obsessive-compulsiveness is a virtue, just like borderline-psychopathic competitive drive. Whereas most great players carry out a system flawlessly down to the last detail, Manning is the system itself, an embodiment of the organizing principles of football strategy. It’s as if the king on a chess board became sentient and started moving the other pieces itself.
Manning has absorbed football like very few players in history, so much that it’s tempting to pit him against Tebow in a battle between substance and empty celebrity. In that calculus, the Broncos chose the right option: the player who allows them to compete in a more serious way, one less dependent on buzzwords like “miracles” and “clutchness.” However, it’s misleading to present Manning and Tebow as allegorical forces clashing for the soul of football, if only because they both stand for ideas equally important to the modern NFL’s brand. Both Tebow’s drama and Manning’s strategic depth work in concert, simultaneously drawing fans in and maintaining their interest with a mix of broad emotional arcs and intersecting details.
What’s important is that there be a balance. Tebowmania was often ridiculous because observers failed to to discuss the reality of the Broncos as a football team, failing to praise a very good defense for keeping games close and instead imbuing Tebow with the qualities of a sorcerer. By not grounding Tebow’s story in what he did on the field—for some reason, no one in the national press seemed willing to describe how his skills as a runner posed a unique challenge in the closing minutes of a game—they turned him into a quarterback who will only ever be championed or chastised, never tolerated.
For most of his career, Manning has tempered his obsessive on-field style with compelling narratives: his struggles against the Patriots, his eventual Super Bowl win, and his relationship with his brother Eli. With his uncertain health and the Tebow-tinged drama in Denver, the narrative now threatens to overwhelm the detail-driven approach that makes him a unique football player. Until he proves he’s still a star, Manning will be more protagonist than quarterback. Without consistent production on the field, he’s just another character in the NFL story. It’s not football or even a coherent brand, but a boardroom creation that won’t stop until the audience stops caring.