When all is said and done in the AFC West in the 2012 season, the Denver Broncos are either going to be as tall as the mountains that surround them or falling deep into the same valley they occupied as one of the NFL's worst teams in 2010. They've set themselves up for that much with their quarterback signings of Peyton Manning and Caleb Hanie in the last week.
It's the ultimate in risk versus reward. Peyton Manning is the single greatest free agent not only this season but perhaps all time. He's among the best quarterbacks in the history of the NFL. He's a consistent winner and a threat to win the Super Bowl each and every year despite some of the overall talent deficiencies on the Indianapolis Colts over the years (the lack of a running game, the ridiculously poor offensive line at times).
Peyton was the player everyone wanted, and only one team could take home the prize. John Elway and company deserve a tremendous amount of credit for bringing such a player in. They also rid themselves of Tim Tebow. Despite what Tebow's future holds, there was no doubt that it was risky for the Broncos to count on the same last-second antics in 2012 and that the tension and media circus was good for business but bad for football. In short, Elway is likely enjoyed a dream he longed for before the offseason ever started.
At the same time, there is no guarantee on Peyton's health. While he might be able to throw just fine and the nerves in his neck might regenerate back to normal, Manning has still had four neck surgeries in the last calendar year. He's 36-years-old and will not have played in a meaningful NFL game for over 18 months by the time he starts for the Broncos in week one. He's a competitor with a tremendous work ethic who will have every reason to prove the doubters wrong, but it's hard to overcome some of the facts of age and health at this point.
Enter Caleb Hanie. Yes, Caleb Hanie, the same quarterback who helped to tank the Chicago Bears playoff hopes after Jay Cutler was injured. The Bears were aiming high with the arm of Jay Cutler, the legs of Matt Forte and a defense that featured Julius Peppers rushing the passer. Instead, the Bears sat home during the playoffs thinking of what might have been.
There's a reason that Hanie was not pursued and Jason Campbell was quickly signed by new general manager Phil Emery. Emery saw first-hand with the Kansas City Chiefs that not having a quality back-up will ruin a season when the Chiefs went with Tyler Palko for four games in a division they only lost by one. Emery also watched the Bears tank as well from the opposing side and knew the spot behind Cutler had to be better.
Yet the Broncos announced their second signing at the quarterback spot this offseason earlier today with a two-year deal for Hanie. If Manning goes down, Hanie is the guy under center. Brady Quinn is gone to the Chiefs. Tim Tebow is gone to the Jets. Instead, the only cushion behind Manning is the guy that couldn't get it done last year. That's a poor handcuff, to use fantasy football terms.
ESPN's Bill Williamson writes, "Let’s face it: The Broncos will be dire straits if Manning, 36, misses a huge chunk of time, regardless of who is the backup. In Hanie, Denver gets a player it thinks can adjust to its system. Watch for Denver to perhaps add a quarterback in some point in the draft."
The Broncos' success last season was predicated on the running game and defense, so those things will still be in play if Manning does go down. But the Chargers and Chiefs have both gotten better this offseason, so the division should not be the cake walk that it was in 2011. After all, the Chiefs specifically lost Eric Berry, Jamaal Charles, Tony Moeaki and Matt Cassel to injury and still came within a game of the division title.
Elway certainly deserves credit for the vision that he had at quarterback and doing what he had to in order to bring in Manning. However, it's surprising that he also didn't jump on Jason Campbell, Chad Henne, Kyle Orton or a number of other suitable back-ups who could hold down the fort in case of emergency. John Elway has rolled the dice and he can only hope for a Rocky Mountain High when all is said and done.