- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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From a sheer football strategy standpoint, Tim Tebow may indeed prove useful to the New York Jets as a spot-duty option quarterback. But what's driving the misapprehensions about his trade to New York is Tebow the Phenomenon, which is more like some colorless, odorless gas that comes curling under the closed door or leaking through the floorboards. Just how exactly do you get a grasp on that?
Tebow is the most unusual distraction in sports because he's a blameless distraction. He doesn't do anything wrong. He's a great teammate, great guy, tireless competitor and stone-cold workout freak who, on his own, hired a cadre of experts to try to make him a better quarterback and didn't disagree or pout when critics bleated that he needs work. He says and does all the right things. He's a different kind of cat, all right -- the words "virgin star NFL quarterback" do not usually appear together, but they apply to him. But nobody charges Tebow is not genuine.
(The last time I interviewed Tebow one-on-one was just before the 2010 NFL draft, and I asked him -- only half-jokingly -- what is the worst thing he does? He thought about it a bit, then slapped the table and said, "I know! I crack my knuckles -- a lot!" I told him I was, uh ... thinking more along the lines that, I don't know -- maybe he doesn't recycle? He sagged, thought some more, then brightened again and said, "I also don't take my cereal bowl to the sink when I'm done. That's really bad." I am not making this up.)
Tebow is called, with justification, the most polarizing man in sports. Controversy follows him as reliably as fans of his devout Christian beliefs do. But trying to fault him for it is like trying to grab a wet bar of soap or corral a greased pig. In his brief time in Denver, the steadily mounting body count went like this: His presence ran Kyle Orton out of town, left fellow backup Brady Quinn bitter and out of a job and drove executive VP John Elway to such distraction that even before Peyton Manning shook loose, Elway already looked at Tebow-mania as a binary equation: It's either him or me.
But again, what exactly did Tebow do that was objectionable? Elway bailed even though Tebow beat Rex Ryan's Jets, a Dolphins team run by new Jets offensive coordinator Tony Sparano and the Steelers in the playoffs -- all with late-game comebacks -- and was 7-4 as Denver's starter.
Folks in Denver -- both Tebow critics and Tebow admirers -- insist the Jets have absolutely no idea of what they just invited to town. It's not even accurate to call it a sideshow. Tebow-mania is more likely to be the main event in what New York Post columnist Steve Serby has already comically nicknamed "The Ringless Brothers and Ryan & Tebow Circus."
But there are suggestions that Tebow knows exactly what to expect.
Tebow will agree he has work to do reading NFL defenses, but he clearly anticipated some of the questions he was asked on the late-night conference call the Jets held Wednesday. As usual, Tebow breezed through everything that was thrown at him with good humor and aplomb. Many of the questions were the usual questions he gets asked, or referred obliquely to his devout Christian faith.
"I wanted to play for Coach Ryan ever since I saw 'Hard Knocks,'" Tebow chuckled, referring to Ryan's profane star turn on the five-week-long HBO training camp series in 2010. "He just seemed like a coach who loves football and is passionate about the game of football. He's definitely a players' coach. I just love that about him."
Asked if the freewheeling Ryan's many F-bombs were jarring for him, Tebow just laughed some more and said, "I have so much respect for Coach Ryan. He's a coach you want to play for, a coach you want to go out there and do well for. ... There's not many NFL locker rooms you're going to go where you have the cleanest language, so I'm not too worried about that."
Tebow also said he'd already heard from fourth-year Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez, and "I called him back. We talked, got a chance to catch up a little bit. It was a great conversation."
"We've been blessed to get to know each other the last three years," Tebow said. "I think we're both extremely competitive. I think we'll be able to push each other to get a lot better. I think we'll have a great working relationship, and we've had a great relationship off the field. He's such a classy guy. I'll be very honored to call him my teammate."
Sanchez will eventually surface and say similar things.
And if or when it all goes wrong, it won't be Tebow's fault, per se. Not exactly.
Sanchez is a more polished quarterback right now. But a chill had to go rippling up his spine anyway if he heard Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum on ESPN's "Mike & Mike in the Morning" show Thursday. Tannenbaum said the Jets envision using Tebow in Sparano's Wildcat offense: "If our offense is sputtering, we have three straight three-and-outs, and we roll it out there, who knows? Tim is really effective with the ball, running it and throwing it. ... We think we can have explosive plays out of it."
"If" the offense is sputtering? It will sputter, guaranteed. So doesn't that put Sanchez on a short leash, with Tebow set up to be nothing but a hero, a backup with a chance to reap all the glory but none of the blame? Tebow is going to play.
The Jets say Tebow's presence will be a pain that cuts into opponents' preparation time. But that ignores the fact that it will also take away practice snaps and perhaps in-game, red zone plays from Sanchez, the same man who once told GQ magazine he was ready to fight Ryan when Ryan tried to tweak him two seasons ago by instructing his no-threat backup, 40-something Mark Brunell, to take a few of his practice reps. And most starting NFL quarterbacks are the same. They jealously hoard even practice reps like diamonds, not just their snaps during games.
So we'll see. The Jets are either going to revolutionize the NFL by boldly trotting out the only run-first, two-quarterback platoon offense in a star-quarterback/pass-first league, throwing dirt on years of conventional thinking that also holds the starting quarterback must be the unquestioned leader and focal point of the team.
Or they're going to flop and be mocked for their hubris.
But don't blame Tebow. He is what he is: great guy, great dilemma.
The Jets can't say they haven't been warned.
Tim Tebow is a great guy. But he brings an unusual distraction to the Jets.