- Rich Cimini, ESPN Staff Writer
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A few days after the Tim Tebow trade, Woody Johnson sat in a shaded courtyard at the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, Fla. -- site of the NFL spring meetings -- and calmly explained the thinking behind the move. When pressed on the possibility of a quarterback controversy, the mild-mannered New York Jets owner got a little snippy.
"I'm going to be very clear: Mark Sanchez is our starting quarterback. Period," he said sharply. "That's it. He's our starting quarterback."
Now let's fast-forward to Johnson's interview Monday morning on Bloomberg TV, where he showed up to stump for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. The conversation got around to the quarterbacks, and Johnson, clearly still galled by Sunday's disgraceful loss, sounded as though he was wearing a No. 15 jersey under his navy blue suit and Jets green tie.
Johnson said the prospect of Tebow starting is "a question that will be asked more frequently if this progresses because this is unacceptable playing." His first reference to Sanchez wasn't by name; he called him "this quarterback."
Oh, Johnson gave the obligatory "he can get the job done" line, but Johnson didn't sound nearly as confident in Sanchez as he did that sunny day in March, when the Grand Tebow Plan was only a blueprint, not reality.
Reality is here, folks, and what we have is yet another dimension to the Jets' multilayered quarterback controversy: the owner.
Don't underestimate Johnson's role in this. Two people who know Johnson, and know how he runs his football operation, believe he will push his football people to start Tebow. Let's be clear: There's no evidence to suggest this is happening, but only a naïve person would think this owner won't get involved if the product on the field continues to disappoint.
Johnson did it in 2008, instructing general manager Mike Tannenbaum and then-coach Eric Mangini to trade for Brett Favre. The Jets were coming off a bad year, and Johnson wanted to create some buzz. Well, he got plenty of buzz, but the idea ultimately failed and he fired Mangini.
A similar scenario unfolded this year, with the Jets trying to rebound from a disappointing season while competing in the same market as the defending Super Bowl champs. They already had secured their backup quarterback, Drew Stanton, but they dropped everything -- including Stanton -- as soon as Tebow became available.
Tebow is good for business because he's one of the most popular athletes in the country. Johnson, speaking last month from the Republican National Convention, told a national TV audience, "You can never have too much Tebow." Sanchez, in perhaps his most candid comment ever, said of Johnson's remark, "Trying to sell tickets, man, trying to sell tickets."
Johnson is sensitive to the perception that he acquired Tebow for non-football reasons -- "a publicity stunt," as Joe Namath called it -- but where is the evidence to make us believe otherwise? As each week passes, it becomes more obvious that the coaching staff has no idea how to use Tebow in the Wildcat.
Tebow has played only 32 snaps on offense, including just 15 at quarterback. They have him blocking and they have him running pass routes. The Wildcat has made zero impact on the offense.
Even Rex Ryan acknowledged Monday that "we haven't been as successful at running the Wildcat as I thought we would." Two weeks ago, offensive coordinator Tony Sparano -- supposedly The Godfather of the Wildcat -- admitted he's navigating uncharted waters because of Tebow's unique skill set.
Namath is looking smarter every week.
Now there's talk that Tebow might not be happy, with ESPN's Ed Werder suggesting Tuesday that Tebow is frustrated and bewildered by his lack of involvement. Werder, expressing informed opinion, said Tebow believes the Jets haven't lived up to their promises.
This is a mess, a mess the Jets created. And it will get worse, at least behind the scenes, if/when Johnson starts exerting his influence. After all, he's the boss. Don't think for a second that scene Sunday in the fourth quarter -- an empty stadium, except for loud and delirious San Francisco 49ers fans -- didn't resonate with him.
If the same nightmare plays out Monday night against the Houston Texans -- in prime time, no less -- it will infuriate Johnson. How many fans would show up the following week to see a 2-3 team play the Indianapolis Colts?
The fan base already is riled up -- especially after Johnson admitted Monday that, if he had a choice, he'd rather have Romney win the White House than see the Jets have a winning season. It was a foot-in-mouth moment. He should've talked around the question, saying he'd like the best of both worlds -- Romney hosting the Super Bowl champion Jets in the Rose Garden.
If Johnson thinks Tebow will satisfy the masses, he'll push for it, you can bet on that. Publicly, his coach remains behind Sanchez -- the smart move. To change quarterbacks now would be a panic move, but don't be surprised if Tebow's role starts growing significantly. If the losing continues, he might grow into the starter.
The man who signs the checks has the ultimate final say. Yes, he wants to win, badly. But he also wants to keep the customers coming.
14hEric D. Williams