He captivated the football world with his late-game magic, resuscitated a dormant franchise and lit up the league's No. 1 defense in a stirring playoff triumph. He stays out of trouble, comforts cancer patients and inspires devotion and admiration from teammates – and he's only 24.
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And yet, through the bizarre filter of NFL groupthink, Tim Tebow is a distraction, a term typically reserved for loudmouthed, lawless or disloyal locker-room inhabitants.
"If it came down to it, I'd rather have T.O. on my team than Tebow," one NFC offensive coordinator told me recently, referring to out-of-the-NFL wideout Terrell Owens. "One's bad energy, and one's good – but a distraction is still a distraction. He has so many fans who are so intense about it that it's constantly an issue, whether he's playing or not, and most of us don't want that. We're in the business of trying to minimize distractions, and when you think about Tebow, you have to ask yourself, 'Is it worth it?' "
That's a question New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan, general manager Mike Tannenbaum and owner Woody Johnson answered in the affirmative on Wednesday, as the club traded fourth- and sixth-round selections in next month's draft to acquire Tebow and a seventh-rounder from the Denver Broncos. With Tebow made expendable by Peyton Manning's decision to sign with the Broncos two days earlier, the Jets won out over other suitors, including the Jacksonville Jaguars and St. Louis Rams, for the sports world's most obsessively followed backup and situational substitute.
At least, that's what the Jets are publicly saying Tebow is. This being the NFL, that statement is hardly unequivocal. This being the Big Apple, speculation, cynicism and side-choosing is brutally inevitable.
It's hardly surprising, then, that even before Tebow's formal introduction by the franchise, we have our first report (from New York Daily News columnist Gary Myers) that the young quarterback is angling for Mark Sanchez's job.
Consider that Sanchez, whom the Jets acquired after trading up for the fifth overall pick of the 2009 draft, signed a reported three-year, $40.5 million contract extension two weeks ago. If he thought that bolstered his job security, suffice it to say he has now been forced to re-evaluate that conviction.
After winning four playoff games and appearing in conference-title clashes during his first two seasons, Sanchez struggled in 2011. The Jets went 8-8 and missed the playoffs, and the quarterback's leadership was publicly questioned by teammates. Now he'll have a guy on his sidelines – and, at times, in his huddle – who habitually breeds mania, in a sports town in which vocal, brusque overstatement is the norm.
Throw in the fact that Ryan, the head coach, is a boastful risk-taker hell-bent on instant gratification, and what could possibly go wrong? The video footage of Ryan, while dining in a Baton Rouge, La., restaurant shortly after the trade's completion, getting Tebowed by a pair of fans was a stark reminder that none of this will be subtle.
Given that Tannenbaum, in comments to ESPN Radio's "Mike & Mike in the Morning" on Thursday, suggested that the team could choose to "roll" with an alternative package featuring Tebow at quarterback in a given game should the offense sputter under Sanchez, it sure seems like conspicuous controversy is hovering on the horizon.
Obviously, the Jets' powerbrokers are at peace with this, and we shouldn't expect Tebow – who may or may not have nudged the Broncos to send him to the Jersey side of the Hudson rather than Jacksonville, despite his obvious Florida ties – to be overly subservient. Remember, this is a player who last fall was repeatedly fined by his fellow Broncos quarterbacks when he failed to disavow a billboard urging that he replace then-Denver starter Kyle Orton.
My suspicion is that deep inside, Ryan is cool with this, and that the coach doesn't want Tebow to be overly deferential. Virtually every successful quarterback has an immense amount of self-confidence and swagger, and the Jets didn't trade for a neutered version of this former Heisman winner.
The real issue is how Sanchez, who had precious little competition during his first three seasons, will respond to the threat posed by Tebow and the noise his new backup's presence engenders.
As with most things Jets, this move is set up to succeed wildly or fail spectacularly, with little middle ground. Given the seeming toxicity of the team's locker room late last season, the smart money is on the latter.
And yet – somehow – I can see this trade being the key to a smashing season for the Jets, and perhaps more to follow.
If the hot breath of Tebowmania is the kick in the butt that prods Sanchez to fulfill his promise – and despite the disappointments of 2011, the kid has shown plenty of flashes – then this trade will have been a genius move.
Or if Sanchez wilts and gets stepped over by the lefty who completed just 46.5 percent of his passes in 2011 and often seemed to be surveying opposing defenses the way I stare at ancient hieroglyphics, this could still turn out to be a smooth move.
Tebow, for all of his obvious flaws, remains an intriguing difference-maker with prodigious potential. He did some fantastic things under immense amounts of scrutiny and pressure last season, and in retrospect it's hard not to be even more awed by what he was able to accomplish.
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Given that what we'd long suspected is now confirmed – Broncos executive vice president John Elway and Denver's other top decision-makers never really believed in him – Tebow's ability to rally his teammates to a stunning AFC West title and overtime playoff upset of the Pittsburgh Steelers seems especially impressive.
Now, unlike with last year's lockout-induced dead zone, let's give the kid an entire offseason to devour an offensive system and apply his much-heralded work ethic to improving his craft, and maybe, just maybe, his growth curve will soar like one of his pinpoint deep balls against the Steelers' top-ranked defense in January.
Should it go down that way – with the City That Never Sleeps embracing the Quarterback Who Couldn't Throw – we'll see a wave of euphoria that makes Linsanity look like the Empire State Building to Tebowmania's King Kong.
And that, without a doubt, would be a distraction the Jets would happily tolerate.
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