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FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Four months ago, the New York Jets debuted their Wildcat offense in a clandestine training-camp practice. Spectators were barred from attending and beat writers were forbidden from reporting any details.
The Jets created Pentagon-like paranoia, going so far as to have players organize a wall on the sideline to block the view of reporters. It made national headlines, of course, fueling the Tim Tebow frenzy and raising expectations to an unrealistic level.
They were so confident, so smug, thinking they were about to unleash the greatest thing since the forward pass.
On Sunday, the Jets face the San Diego Chargers, their final home game in a lost season, and once again there will be a noteworthy player wall on the sideline:
Tebow and Mark Sanchez, side by side, both of them watching neophyte Greg McElroy at quarterback -- a picture that will say everything about the sad state of the Jets.
The season unraveled for a number of reasons, but nothing symbolizes the failure more accurately than the Tebow debacle. This isn't the story of one player and unfulfilled expectations; it's symptomatic of a larger problem -- dysfunction in the organization.
A mistake of this magnitude doesn't happen unless there's disconnect between ownership, the personnel department and the coaching staff. Someone hatched an idea and sold it to other factions of the organization -- or, rather, forced them to buy it. No matter how the Jets spin it, it was a colossal blunder.
The personnel department misjudged Tebow's talent, overestimating his ability to run the Wildcat and operate as a conventional No. 2 quarterback.
|Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow appear to be on their way out of New York after the Jets' brass dropped the ball last offseason.|
The coaching staff, if it was on board with the idea (you wonder), failed to create a niche for Tebow in the offense.
The owner? Woody Johnson made it worse by talking up Tebow at every opportunity, making the ridiculous comment, "You can never have too much Tebow."
They all miscalculated the impact he'd have on Sanchez and the organization from a distraction standpoint. From Tebow's first news conference, which drew more than 200 media members, it was a circus.
"They brought him in to replace Brad Smith and to challenge Sanchez, and it didn't work," one NFL source said. "With Sanchez regressing, and them not having enough faith in Tebow to install him, it tells me they missed on his role and missed on the evaluation. There has to be a disconnect somewhere. They misjudged the vision.
"When Tebow got on campus and they saw his pocket-passing skills, they simply weren't good enough to function in a conventional offense, which their previous evaluations should've told them," the source continued. "Even worse, Sanchez felt no motivational threat once he saw Tebow throw after a few practices."
In training camp, team officials privately bragged about Tebow, predicting how they'd tear apart defenses with the Wildcat. His ability to throw out of the Wildcat, they said, would create major problems for opponents.
One problem: The Jets quickly discovered he can't throw straight. Was this a revelation? Didn't they watch tape of him last season in Denver? In 72 offensive snaps, Tebow has attempted only six passes. He was so bad in practice, one player said, that Rex Ryan would've lost the locker room if he had elevated Tebow to the starting job during one of Sanchez's early slumps.
The Jets also were surprised by his limitations as a runner -- only 10 rushing first downs -- but part of that problem was his lack of opportunity. In Denver, he was a running threat because he was on the field for 70 plays a game, wearing down defenses with his bruising style.
That's hard to do when you get only two or three carries per game.
"It's a little different scenario when you're the quarterback on the field like the kid in San Francisco [Colin Kaepernick] or Russell Wilson [in Seattle], those type of people, because there's the element of anything happening," said offensive coordinator Tony Sparano, who was supposed to be a Wildcat guru. "When Tim comes in the game, those elements are a little bit limited because he's not playing every single play."
Translation: They messed up.
Teams make personnel mistakes all the time, but this transcended a routine blunder because of Tebow's popularity and because of the way he was hyped by the organization. It also revealed cracks, which are starting to show.
No one is willing to own up to the mistake. Ryan fumbles for answers whenever he's asked about Tebow's lack of production. Looking for something nice to say, he actually praised Tebow for his work as the personal protector, claiming opponents were so concerned about the threat of a fake that it helped the net punting average.
Does Ryan honestly believe people will buy that?
Sparano, who has little chance of surviving this mess, bristled when asked why it hasn't worked with Tebow.
"It's a combination of things, but I wouldn't use the words 'didn't work' at all," said Sparano, sounding as disingenuous as a used-car salesman.
Johnson said recently that general manager Mike Tannenbaum hatched the Tebow idea. At the time of the trade, Ryan, too, said it was Tannenbaum's brainchild. Know this: Johnson bought in immediately and became infatuated with Tebow, sources said.
Ryan has said many times that he was on board with it, but his actions say otherwise. He doesn't play Tebow. The ultimate indignity came this week, when Ryan benched Sanchez, passed over Tebow and named McElroy the starter. Tebow was "furious," according to a team source.
The trade cost the Jets a fourth-round pick and $4.6 million -- $1.6 million for Tebow's 2012 salary, $2.5 million to the Broncos and $500,000 to Drew Stanton, who got to keep his signing bonus even though he lasted only a few days as the No. 2 quarterback.
They could've used that money to address other needs. Instead, they got a novelty act that ranks 10th on the team in yards from scrimmage. They will trade or release him after the season.
In terms of collateral damage, Tebow's presence changed the team dynamic. His post-trade news conference annoyed players, and some felt he coveted the spotlight too much for a backup player, undermining Sanchez.
The Jets really thought this would work -- or maybe they just did a great job of convincing themselves it would. The night of the trade, Tannenbaum said, "What we've become is a diverse, more dynamic offense."
Pretty soon they were creating walls at practice, shielding their top-secret weapon. Now there's a wall with handwriting on it, and it's not a happy message.