John Elway was considering Colin Kaepernick's future when a name from Broncos past invaded the conversation.
“It’s like a Tebow situation, right?” Elway said.
Yes, it is. Tebow and Kaepernick are, at the same time, vastly different and deceptively similar. Both drew as much attention for their kneeling as they did for their quarterbacking. Tebow was kneeling in end zones to honor Jesus Christ, and Kaepernick was kneeling on sidelines to protest police violence.
Neither became a prototype NFL quarterback. Both are stupendously gifted runners and mediocre (in Kaepernick’s case) or far-less-than-mediocre (in Tebow’s case) passers. Their styles of play strayed far from the NFL norm, and they paid dearly for their straying.
Elway was recently talking about Case Keenum, the Broncos' new QB, when the conversation veered into the Kaepernick realm. A 30-year-old who carried the 49ers to two NFC title games and led them to a fourth-quarter lead in the Super Bowl is unemployed.
“Because it becomes more about everything else,” Elway said.
What Elway means is this:
NFL teams don’t want a circus to accompany a (probable) backup quarterback. The Tebow Circus shortened his career, and the much-larger and much more controversial Kaepernick Circus appears to have ended his career.
“Too bad for him,” Elway said of Kaepernick. “Teams aren’t afraid of him. They’re afraid of what it brings to the football team. And it’s unfortunate for him, but that’s the tough thing.
“All that stuff becomes the topic and it takes away from what you’re trying to do.”
If Aaron Rodgers suddenly decided to kneel during the national anthem, NFL owners would not banish him. He would remain a starter. His talent is immense enough that owners would defy angry fans.
Kaepernick is not deemed worthy of the hassle. He’s good, certainly good enough to labor as a backup and perhaps good enough to start for a QB-desperate team.
Tebow, too, ranked among the top 35 quarterbacks in the NFL, but his distinctive style demanded a specialized offense, and he became too outlandishly popular for his own good. The band of wildly enthusiastic Tebow believers, and they are legion, helped speed his NFL demise.
“All that stuff becomes the topic and it takes away from what you’re trying to do,” Elway said of Kaepernick’s and Tebow’s vastly different “stuff.”
I’ve been following the Broncos since the 1970s, and there’s been a procession of entertaining seasons and players. The Tebow storyline of 2011 ranks near the top of the list of thrills.
His comeback victories against the Jets and Bears inspired Mile High to quake – literally quake - at a level I’ve never heard before, or since. He played quarterback with the passionate and violent spirit of a linebacker. He was immensely fun to watch.
But he had a thorn in the flesh. His inaccurate left arm was exposed in his final three losses as starter, when he completed only 28 of 77 passes.
The Tebow Circus was fully on display at Peyton Manning’s introductory press conference. Tebow wasn’t there, but it seemed as if he were standing in the middle of the big room. Manning and Elway were asked, over and over, about Tebow, at the time scheduled to serve as backup to one of the NFL’s all-time top four or five quarterbacks.
Didn’t happen. Tebow was traded, and only threw another eight NFL passes.
Meanwhile, in the present, Kaepernick will probably never play in another NFL game.
Elway took care to say he likes Kaepernick. In the summer of 2016, just before anthem kneeling became a blazing national issue, Elway talked with Kaepernick about playing quarterback for the Broncos, but they clashed on cash.
“He’s a great kid,” Elway said. “I met with him twice. We just didn’t agree with where he was moneywise.”
Back then, Kaepernick looked on his way to another half-dozen seasons in the NFL.
And then the kneeling/circus began.