Commentary

Tebow makes Jets, Sanchez better

World-famous backup isn't just a publicity machine -- he can help Gang Green win

Updated: July 26, 2012, 11:16 PM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

CORTLAND, N.Y. -- The Tim Tebow trade, always a smart play for the New York Jets, already paid off before the first snap of the first training camp day. It paid off in the form of Mark Sanchez, who arrived here Thursday wearing a black tank top designed to showcase the new and improved definition in his arms.

Sanchez has never been much of a physical specimen, and he's not likely to ever interrupt one of his Jets West summer sessions for a Muscle Beach showdown with his best frenemy, Tebow, a quarterback who reduces linemen to quivering wrecks in the weight room.

But the first-stringer has already responded to the presence of the world's most famous second-stringer, packing on a dozen tough-guy pounds in an attempt to enhance his durability and, of course, to keep Tebow tucked under a baseball cap near the bench.

So Sanchez is ready to fight for what has been his for three uneven years. Good for him, even better for the Jets. The quarterback needed a credible threat to his job, and Rex Ryan couldn't generate one with old man Mark Brunell as his lone alternative.

Problem solved. If Brunell represented a water pistol, Tebow represents a weapon of mass distraction. All the T-shirts in the shop windows announced Cortland as TebowTown, and Sanchez seems to get it.

He's allowing this to be Tebow's town, as long as it's not Tebow's team.

"Mentally," Sanchez said, "you've got to be strong in this position. I'll be ready for it. ... I'm confident that I'm going to be ready to play, that I'm ready to lead this team."

Ryan kept calling Sanchez "our starting quarterback," yet declined to confirm that Tebow has no chance of stealing the job in camp. Hmmm. Ryan likely wants to keep a little heat on Sanchez, hit him here and there from the blind side after a Year 3 that amounted to a regression easier measured by the human eye than the stat sheet.

In 2010, Ryan revealed he considered benching Sanchez for Brunell. In 2011, Ryan revealed he was giving the backup a few of the starter's reps in practice. Asked if he would hesitate to publicly challenge Sanchez the same way on Tebow's watch, a move that would certainly fire up Rex's no-ring circus like never before, Ryan maintained he would not.

[+] EnlargeMark Sanchez
William Perlman/THE STAR-LEDGER/US PresswireTim Tebow's presence as the No. 2 compelled Mark Sanchez, above, to pack on 12 pounds of muscle in the offseason.

"I'll say this, that I'm here to win games," the coach said. "And whatever that means, if Mark's physically not ready to go or whatever, if this player's not ready to go, I hope we have guys on this team that will ... be ready to step up. We'll always do what's in the best interests of our football team and what gives us the best chance to win."

But this isn't merely about inspiring Sanchez to perform at a higher level. Despite the hysteria over the alleged absurdity of it all, the Tebow acquisition makes sense in so many ways, starting with the fact that a major area of Jets vulnerability -- backup quarterback -- has become a position of strength.

Tebow over Brunell is a no-brainer, and a trade that gives the Jets a chance to win some games if Sanchez goes down. In shooting down the theory that two starting-caliber quarterbacks leave you with no starting-caliber quarterbacks, Ryan cited the San Francisco 49ers of Joe Montana and Steve Young.

"I think they won a few games, I'm not real sure," Ryan said.

The better comparison is the 1990 Giants, who never would've won it all if Jeff Hostetler wasn't around to take the ball from an injured Phil Simms.

Sanchez hasn't proven to be Simms, and Tebow hasn't proven to be Hostetler, and that's OK. It's always better to have some insurance at the game's most important position, and even that leading scholar in the field of quarterback dynamics, Santonio Holmes, would agree with that.

Holmes would also agree that the Jets' roster is dangerously short on playmakers -- go ahead, take a look -- and that Tebow's hiring adds up in that context, too. Sometimes he can throw the ugliest of passes, but if any team can use a zig-zagging 250-pound athlete who forces defensive coordinators to account for his versatility, the Jets are that team.

"It's a great weapon for us," Nick Mangold said of Tebow, "and Mark understands that."

"He can do it all," Sanchez agreed.

Tony Sparano, the new offensive coordinator? A Jets source said Sparano "couldn't stand" Tebow's game when he coached the Florida Gator at the Senior Bowl, but time has softened that stance. Tebow did lead the Denver Broncos to the playoffs and a first-round victory last year, apparently impressing everyone but his boss, John Elway.

Denver shipped him to Ryan and GM Mike Tannenbaum, who passed down Tebow to Sparano, a founding father of the Wildcat offense. "This guy's a football player," Sparano said on Thursday.

A football player who didn't just overshadow Sanchez on report day, but also Eli and Peyton Manning, just a couple of average Joes who have three Super Bowl MVPs to their names.

On arrival, Tebow laughed and shrugged off Tebowmania the way he laughs and shrugs off everything. He spoke of enjoying a "great" relationship with Sanchez, of wanting the Jets "to come together and play for one cause," and of accepting whatever role Ryan assigned him.

He stayed on a polished message, opening two separate news briefings with the same line about feeling like he was showing up for freshman classes at Florida. Reminded that he had won a national title as a high-profile backup to -- and red-zone replacement of -- Gators senior Chris Leak, Tebow said tension in a two-quarterback system can be managed if everyone involved keeps a team-centric focus.

But doesn't any transcendent figure the likes of Tebow ultimately crave a return to the starting lineup?

"My goal is to get better every single day," he said. "For me it's not about living in the past or the future. It's about living in the present."

In the present, the Jets will only push the notion of the happy campers so much. The dueling quarterbacks didn't arrive together, and didn't hold a combo news conference the way LeBron James and Dwyane Wade did during the bad old days in Miami.

The Jets also realized that making them roommates would've been dumber than making Holmes a captain. So Sanchez will bunk with the third-stringer, Greg McElroy, and Tebow with the receiver Chaz Schilens.

Even Rex wouldn't guarantee that his quarterbacks will live happily ever after, and who cares? Tim Tebow isn't a mere publicity machine. He's an athlete who makes the Jets a better team.

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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