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Wednesday, September 12, 2012
Updated: September 13, 2:03 PM ET
Tim Tebow's best may be behind him

By Ian O'Connor
ESPNNewYork.com

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Tim Tebow was only 24 years, 147 days old when he savored his defining NFL moment, a playoff victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers that was not merely a monument to his improvisational spirit and competitive will, but a statistical triumph as well.

For a change, Tebow's fans did not have to defend the box score that January day in Denver. They did not have to go on and on about their guy's intangibles, even if Tebow made good on only 10 of 21 passes in a league in which quarterbacks complete 50 percent of their attempts in their sleep.

Finally, the numbers were Tebow's dearest friends. He threw for 316 yards and two touchdowns, including the walk-off homer in overtime, and painted a metric masterpiece with a 97.5 Total QBR and a 125.6 passer rating, or a better passer rating than the skeptical man upstairs (John Elway, not Him) had managed in any of his playoff games.

Tebow's reward, of course, was a thrashing in Tom Brady's backyard and a trade to the New York Jets, who did Elway and Peyton Manning the favor of taking Tebowmania off their hands.

Of course, you would think Tebow still has the life. He's young, healthy, rich and admired around the world for what appears to be an unbreakable moral compass. Oh, and he has a pretty cool job to boot.

It just isn't the job he really wants.

So after Tebow suits up against the Steelers on Sunday, there might be a moment or three when he realizes that his NFL experience will never again be as good as it was at the end of his second year in the league. He wasn't a gimmick that day against Pittsburgh, or a sandlot player who accidentally found himself zig-zagging around a big-league field and making it up on the fly.

No, Tebow wasn't merely an athletic fullback lining up behind the center. At 24 years, 147 days of age, he was a big-time quarterback with a big-time arm, breaking the league playoff record for yards per completion (31.6) and throwing in 50 rushing yards for the hell of it.

"It was a special game, a special win," Tebow said Wednesday at his locker. "A lot of fun times were had."

Wearing a sweat-soaked gray T-shirt and a play chart on his right forearm, Tebow was in a post-practice rush. He had to get to a special teams meeting, an appointment Mark Sanchez wasn't required to keep.

Tim Tebow
Former Broncos QB Tim Tebow has fond memories of last season's playoff victory over the Steelers.

Tebow talked the way he always talks, like the boy all grown-up in Tom Hanks' "Big." Everything about the Jets was fun, and exciting, and five yards beyond great.

"I'm just going to do whatever I'm asked to do," he said in a reciting of his party line.

Tebow said he just wants to help the Jets win games ("That's why we're all here"), and reminded reporters that he'd been a reserve with the Broncos and with the Florida Gators, as a freshman. Three days after rushing for 11 yards on five carries, lining up as a slot receiver, and falling on an onside kick in a victory over Buffalo defined by Sanchez's precision and poise, not to mention the fans' impatience with Sanchez's backup, Tebow called his role "a new opportunity."

One of the planet's most famous quarterbacks, first or second string, even maintained he wasn't upset that he didn't throw a single pass. Sanchez backed him up for the record, too, calling Tebow "a great friend of mine" who hasn't shown any sign of discontent.

"He's really come in and fit in with our team," Sanchez said. "He's tried to be a team guy all the way, and he understands that he's going to get opportunities to touch the football, and when he does he wants to make the most of them."

But Sanchez danced around the question of how he'd feel if he were in Tebow's position, reduced to a part-time specialist just months after leading a team to the playoffs and a first-round victory.

"If I were in his shoes," the starter said, "I don't know how I'd handle some of the stuff he goes through. But it's fun to talk about in the quarterback room."

Here's one thing Sanchez and his friend don't bring up in that room: Tebow is the first quarterback to win a postseason game and open the following season out of the starting lineup -- for reasons other than retirement or injury -- since Trent Dilfer was Seattle's No. 2 in 2001 after winning it all with Baltimore, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

So a young man with a near-perfect life has to get by with a wildly imperfect job. Mark Sanchez means business, or it sure looked like he did against Buffalo, and that means the starting quarterback inside Tebow might've been better off in Jacksonville, competing against the lesser likes of Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne near home, sweet home.

The sight of the Steelers will only harden those thoughts. "It was something," Tebow said of his playoff victory, "that I'll always have great memories from."

He hadn't thrown for more than 300 yards in any regular-season game in 2011, though he did it once in relief in 2010. But with the Broncos fully aware that Pittsburgh's defense would play the run, and play it physically, they actually gave Tebow the freedom to let it rip.

Denver still remembers. Von Miller celebrated a sack of Ben Roethlisberger on Sunday night by taking a knee and Tebow-ing in tribute to the one and only.

"I heard about it," Tebow said through a smile.

He said he's tight with Miller, too, if only because Tebow is tight with everyone. The Jets' backup quarterback watched Denver-Pittsburgh on film, not live, and said he only watched it as the Steelers' next opponent, not as the exiled Broncos star who knocked them out of last year's tournament.

"But I'm happy for those guys," Tebow said of the Broncos, "because I've got a lot of friends on that team."

That team and city are moving on without Tebow. Everyone in Denver -- Elway above all -- is eager to see how far an aging, recovering, pocket-passing great can carry the Broncos.

Truth is, Peyton Manning has the job Tebow really wants, and so does Mark Sanchez. The Jets' new No. 2 will remember that when he lines up against Pittsburgh, the team he dominated, and prepares to recover another onside kick.