Commentary

Tim Tebow on punt team: Let's do it

Jets QB/cultural icon could be a game-changer on fourth down. Isn't that special?

Updated: September 4, 2012, 10:07 PM ET
By Rich Cimini | ESPNNewYork.com

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Tim Tebow never will forget his first meeting with Mike Westhoff, the New York Jets' special-teams coordinator. He shook Westhoff's hand and, quicker than a punter's hang time, Tebow was on the dry-erase board in the coach's office, diagramming plays.

Specifically, gadget plays they could run with Tebow as the personal protector on the punt team.

"We threw around a bunch of ideas," Tebow said. "It was a lot of fun."

[+] EnlargeTim Tebow
MSA/Icon SMIWhen Tim Tebow gets the snap on fourth down, he could be tough to stop.

Tebow hadn't played a down of special teams in his life, but he was able to speak the language, taking concepts he knew as a shotgun quarterback and applying them to the up-back position. They took turns at the board, the young star and the old coach, jamming like two gifted guitarists from different generations.

Finally, Ben Kotwica, Westhoff's assistant, spoke up, tactfully raising a delicate issue.

You do realize, Kotwica said to Tebow, that if we punt it here, you have to run down, get involved in the coverage and tackle.

There was a moment of awkward silence, followed by The Look. Tebow answered with his eyes, no words necessary.

"It was the greatest," said Westhoff, recalling the moment with a laugh. "He looked at Ben like, 'I can play this game. I can block, I can run, I can catch, I've run people over, I've run around people and I can throw. I'm a football player and I'll do whatever it takes.'"

The two coaches got all that from one glance.

"He answered our question," Westhoff said matter-of-factly.

So here we go.

While Tebow's projected role on offense has generated most of the headlines -- read: Wildcat -- his job on special teams also has people talking. It's not often that a former Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback with an NFL playoff victory on his résumé lines up on the punt team.

But Westhoff is known for thinking outside the box -- he might tell you he invented the box -- and he was cooking up ways to use Tebow as soon as the trade last March with the Denver Broncos was finalized.

"I'm not afraid to try things," he said.

The Jets are sure to be questioned for exposing their No. 2 quarterback to potential injury, but Westhoff believes the upside is greater than the risk. From all indications, Tebow has embraced the role, with Westhoff calling him "one of the most unselfish individuals I've ever come across."

How many cultural icons would be willing to cover a punt?

From Tebow's perspective, the job is somewhat similar to playing quarterback. He said punting is like playing offense, just on fourth down. He identifies the front, counting the number of defenders at the line of scrimmage. He has the freedom to change the play, based on what he sees. If it's a direct snap to him, he does his thing, running a designed play -- or throwing it.

In theory, his mere presence will force opponents, concerned about a possible fake, to dial down the rush, giving punter T.J. Conley more time for a directional punt and allowing the coverage to get downfield quicker than usual.

"To a certain extent, it's just X's and O's and understanding what front they're in," Tebow said. "Are they in a six-man front? An eight-man front? Are they doubling the gunners or are they leaving him single-covered?

"A lot of that I feel like I can translate from offense, especially from what we did at Florida, so many unique looks and formations. We saw so many defensive fronts to stop what we were doing in certain situations, so you feel like you've seen a lot."

This isn't foreign territory to Westhoff. During the 1980s, with the Miami Dolphins, he used the multidimensional Jim Jensen, a former quarterback at Boston University, as the personal protector. Jensen earned the nickname "Crash" for his aggressive style of tackling.

With the Jets, Westhoff had Brad Smith until 2010, another former college quarterback who did just about everything. Westhoff believes Smith's presence as the personal protector was a big reason Steve Weatherford tied an NFL record in 2010 for most punts inside the 20 -- an opinion that Weatherford, now an ex-Jet and Westhoff critic, probably would dispute.

Nevertheless, Westhoff is confident Tebow will change the complexion of the punt-coverage unit. He noticed a difference in the preseason, with opponents rushing more conservatively than usual.

"They have to get the aspect of the [potential] fake covered before they get involved in a rush or a punt-returning look," Westhoff said. "Tim takes it to a different level because of his ability as a quarterback."

Despite his accuracy issues, Tebow is more of a passing threat than Smith ever was, so opponents will have to think "fake" on almost every punt, especially around midfield or in the opponent's territory. At some point, Tebow will have the freedom to call a fake on his own, according to Westhoff. For now, all he can do is audible out of a fake call -- if, for instance, he notices the other team has stacked the box.

Critics of the Tebow plan will argue that the Jets are sacrificing coverage ability by using a player with no experience as a tackler. Tebow, used extensively in the preseason, didn't make a single tackle.

"Do we think Tim Tebow will be our leading tackler? No, of course not," Westhoff said. "But I don't feel like [we're losing anything]. He's been very much involved in the physical part of the game."

At 6-foot-3, 250 pounds, Tebow has linebacker size with better-than-linebacker speed. But is he willing to put his face in the fan, as football coaches like to say? That's the question. His next tackle will be the first of his career. Asked how he'd respond -- a celebration, perhaps? -- Tebow laughed.

"I'll probably get up and run to the sidelines, I don't know," he said.

If Tebow isn't thrilled with this whole special-teams thing, he hasn't let on. He's been a good soldier, beginning on that first day in Westhoff's office, where he started drawing up shifts and motions and fakes -- techno-speak that sounded like beautiful music to Westhoff.

Then, of course, there was The Look. Yes, Tebow remembered it.

"It was probably a bigger impact on them," he said, "than it was for me."

Rich Cimini

ESPN New York Jets reporter

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