Moving past the obvious "WTF" factor, the inevitable media circus that will now hit Foxboro hard, and his clear limitations as a quarterback, one must now ruminate as to precisely how one Tim Tebow fits into the New England Patriots' plans. He could be a fullback, an H-back, a personal punt protector, or any number of other ancillary things, but let's assume, for the sake of argument, that Tebow is going to New England to be what offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels drafted him in the first round of the 2010 NFL draft to be -- a quarterback, and damn the torpedoes. First, we must get past the fact that the Pats already have a pretty decent quarterback in the person of Tom Brady -- this will make no sense to the Tebowites, some of whom are still seriously ticked off that John Elway and John Fox jettisoned their guy aside for that Peyton Manning bum.
No, we must now ask ourselves about Tebow the quarterback. That's what he's ostensibly signing with the Patriots to be, to whatever degree. And we must remember a few things about that possibility: First, the Pats went 11-5 in 2008 with Matt Cassel as their quarterback after Brady injured his knee early in the season opener against the Kansas City Chiefs. Second, New England head coach Bill Belichick is the same guy who once tasked receiver Troy Brown to play defensive back, and set linebacker Mike Vrabel up to catch a bunch of touchdown passes. As everyone is telling you today, Belichick thinks outside the box, and at his best, he's a trend or two ahead of the mainstream. Third, Brady did run 23 times for 11 first downs and four touchdowns in 2012, but one doesn't generally want one's 36-year-old quarterback to keep beating the odds against stacked fronts in short-yardage situations. And for all his glaring limitations as a quarterback, Tebow is actually a pretty decent red-zone threat -- he scored 12 rushing touchdowns in his two years with the Broncos, and the fact that the Jets didn't use him in those types of situations last season was just a matter of the Jets being stupid.
So, moving past the lost year Tebow suffered through with the Jets in 2012, how seriously should we take him as a backup quarterback in an offense that is as complex as anything you'll ever see?
When Tebow started down the stretch for the Broncos in 2011, McDaniels had already been fired, and it was up to offensive coordinator Mike McCoy to weld concepts Tebow could execute to those the other offensive starters could pick up in a hurry. As with other option quarterbacks over the last few years, this was done with a heaping helping of option plays, but in Tebow's case, McCoy aspired as much as possible to set things up so that Tebow's first read was always open, and easily attainable. The Patriots would have to adjust their passing concepts pretty severely to make something like that work, because Belichick and McDaniels currently have the NFL's most complex series of option routes.
Most of what Tebow did in 2011 was a series of simple run-reads in which the imperative was to get the first-read guy open, and cut Tebow loose as a runner if not. The overtime touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas in Denver's wild-card win over the Pittsburgh Steelers was actually a good example of Tebow's nebulous ability to process multiple reads on the run. In the Broncos' 17-13 Week 11 win over the Jets -- the game former Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum referred to when speaking of Tebow as an ideal Wildcat quarterback -- the Broncos ran all kinds of traditional and spread plays, with far more diversity than the Steeler/Power/Counter package.
On the first play of the Jets game, Tebow hit Thomas for a 28-yard gain from an empty-backfield formation in which four receivers were lined up on the right side. And of the 20-yard fourth-quarter Tebow touchdown run that was the game was a designed shotgun run play, Tebow certainly faked the pass well -- he took the ball in a single-back set, clearly looked downfield, and decided to run to his left after the Jets' run containment completely broke down. The Jets were playing Cover-0 (man coverage with no deep safety), but they played pass on Denver's three receivers, and they didn't play straight run up the middle -- they sent two defenders on a dual A-gap blitz.
Tebow can read more than one defender in a progression; he's proven that. What he hasn't proven, at least to date, is the consistent ability to make the kinds of throws into that fire that define the best quarterbacks. The reason is simple -- he hasn't been mechanically set up to do it.
Chief among the quarterback's responsibilities in a heavy option route offense is to acquire a keen sense of timing with his receivers -- the quarterback's targets must trust him to zip the ball in at the right time with all those different choices, and the quarterback must know that his receivers are going to read coverages correctly and respond appropriately. Tebow has always had a pretty severe lag to his throwing motion, which led/forced him to expand the improvisational aspects of his game. If he is to master (or even survive) the kind of complex offensive the Patriots run, the bridge between thought and action will have to be much, much, shorter.
And according to Chris Weinke of IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., who's been working with Tebow since his release from the Jets, there are new -- or fewer -- wrinkles to Tebow's game as a quarterback. Weinke has upgraded the mechanics of everyone from Cam Newton to Matt Barkley in the last few years, and he told Tebow that he's ready to accept a new level of challenge.
"Do I think he can play the quarterback position in the NFL? Yeah, no question,'' Weinke told USA TODAY's Jim Corbett on Monday. "Like I told Tim when I found out (Monday) that he signed, 'You're locked and loaded, ready to go.'"
What Weinke told Corbett about his fixed to Tebow's mechanics very much mirrored what he told me about his tweaks to Newton's throwing motion in 2011.
"I made an adjustment to his lower half and invariably that's where the quickness came from,'' Weinke said of Tebow. "What I saw was, when his feet were in good position, he was throwing the ball with great accuracy, great velocity. And the ball was coming out much quicker."
Similarly, you can expect that Weinke worked with Tebow to become a better pocket passer, because that's what he does with mobile quarterbacks -- he convinces them that they need to be comfortable in that smaller space when things break down from the outside.
One of my philosophies is that I teach quarterbacks to work in a telephone booth," Weinke told me in 2011. "And the reason you do that is that you're going to have people all around you. You must be able to be mechanically sound in that 'telephone booth' — in essence, the pocket. You have to do that to be successful."
Weinke has no question that the New England environment is perfect for a relatively young player (for all the time he's spent in the fishbowl, Tebow's still only 25 years old) working to become a better-than-baseline NFL quarterback.
"The guy has played quarterback his whole life,'' Weinke said. "None of us has a crystal ball. But that's what he's done his whole life. He's proven he can win at that position. He has had great success. He does things the right way and has a guy in Tom who is one of the elite quarterbacks to ever play the game that he'll be able to spend time with every day.
"The things we worked on down here are going to pay dividends in New England.''
There are two things to consider when placing the Tebow fit in New England in one's mind -- Belichick has already studied and mastered the NFL version of the no-huddle, high-tempo offense, and he's just as cognizant of the league's recent trends favoring mobile quarterbacks as you'd imagine. So, as much as people would be shocked if Belichick ever took Brady off the field, a "Tebow package" could resemble the "Colin Plan" Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman had for Colin Kaepernick back in the day when Alex Smith was the San Francisco 49ers' starter. San Francisco beat the Jets over the head with that "Colin Plan" in their Week 34-0 drubbing of Tebow's former team -- Kaepernick and running backs Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter all ran for touchdowns, the 49ers amassed 245 yards on the ground, and the Jets -- who fancied themselves the ultimate Wildcat franchise -- were utterly powerless to stop that more multiple running game.
"Colin's been practicing the game plans every week, and we've always had a little 'Colin Plan,' whether or not we chose to bring it out," Roman told me in the week leading up to Super Bowl XLVII. "We chose to bring it out against the Jets this season for the first time, and it worked. Colin's an adaptable guy -- he can run a lot of different styles of offense, and we're always going to push the envelope with what we put in and ask our players to do. Keep them stimulated, keep things fresh, and teaching as we go.
"They've got to figure out where everyone is, and where they're going. Advantage: Us. We'll take it."
Belichick was ahead of the game on the shotgun formation (the 2007 Pats were the first modern-era team to run Shotgun sets on more than 50 percent of their plays) and the revamped multi-tight end sets for ultimate productivity. Why wouldn't he want some read- and speed-option in the palette? He's not the sort to sit back and let others take advantage of an expanded playbook.
Also, if Belichick projects Tebow as some sort of tight end/H-back/fullback combo, you can bet it's been discussed, and the signing would not have happened if Tebow had an issue with playing other positions. Vrabel, who caught 12 touchdown passes for the Pats in his career as a red-zone option, and now coaches Ohio State's defensive line for longtime Tebow believer and Belichick buddy Urban Meyer, believes that the atypical paradigm can work again. You don't know where you'll see Tebow in this offense, but that doesn't mean it won't succeed.
"There's a model he looks for," Vrabel told ESPN's Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic on Tuesday. "He's looking for guys who will put the team first, and have a competitive spirit. He's not going to sign guys that he doesn't think can help them win. Bill's looking for creative ways to stay ahead of the game. [If they] go up-tempo, or Wildcat, and put Tom somewhere else -- Tom's not a spring chicken, and I'm sure he could use some snaps off. I'm not sure of the plan, but I know Josh liked him enough in Denver after working him out to draft him as his quarterback."
Would Tebow balk at the affront to his supposed quarterback dreams?
"Not if he wants to get a check with a little Patriots logo on it," Vrabel concluded. "That's the deal. You want to do it? It's 'Yes, coach," or 'No, coach." Kind of like that."
Just as the 49ers proved with Kaepernick that it's possible to bring the mobile quarterback to new heights with unusual power and counter blocking schemes, the Patriots could maximize Tebow's abilities in new ways. And if he has to spell Brady, just as Kaepernick had to replace a concussed Alex Smith in November? Well, at least we won't have to worry about the Patriots faithful calling for the starter's head.
At least, we think we won't.