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FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Eight months ago, the New York Jets made a significant organizational decision, outbidding two other franchises to land quarterback Tim Tebow in a high-profile trade.
Now, with the Jets (3-6) in freefall and starter Mark Sanchez struggling, many outsiders are wondering whether Tebow can somehow save the season. In the wake of a 28-7 defeat to the Seattle Seahawks in which Sanchez completed 9 of 22 passes for 124 yards, with a red-zone interception and a fumble, at least some people on the inside are advocating a quarterback switch as well.
"Something's got to change," Jets running back Shonn Greene told Yahoo! Sports. "When you get to the point where you're 3-6, and losing and losing, a couple of guys are like, 'Oh, what would happen [if Tebow played]?' But guys at the same time have faith in Mark, so it's kind of an up-and-down thing.
"You feel bad for Mark, but at the same time you want to win games. We're not here to protect people's feelings. If you want to win games, you've got to try something. If somebody's not getting the job done, you see if somebody else can do it. It's the same with coaching, or any position. You don't mean to belittle someone or say 'he sucks.' That's just the harsh reality."
While Greene's opinion is obviously not unanimous — on Wednesday, the New York Daily News ran a story in which Jets guard Matt Slauson said "we don't really have a choice" but to keep playing Sanchez and an anonymous defensive starter described Tebow as "terrible" — it's closely aligned with mine.
Like Greene and, in all probability, the others in the locker room who've expressed similar sentiments to the running back, I have no desire to bash Sanchez. I like him as a person and admire the way he helped guide the Jets to AFC championship appearances in his first two seasons, and I still believe he can be a standout NFL quarterback.
I also understand some of the reasons that coach Rex Ryan would be hesitant to bench Sanchez, from the team's financial commitment to the fourth-year passer (his 2013 base salary of $8.25 million is fully guaranteed) to the fact that Tebow tends to stink it up in practice, which hardly inspires confidence.
One line of thought I don't buy for maintaining the status quo is that, by giving Tebow a shot, the Jets would crush Sanchez's confidence and prevent the possibility that he could be their franchise quarterback of the future.
For one thing, I don't think Sanchez is that soft. Quarterbacks as accomplished as Joe Montana (the greatest of all time), Phil Simms and Kurt Warner have survived and thrived after being yanked, which was a testament to their competitive drive and fortitude. And if it turns out Sanchez really is that fragile, it will prove that he wasn't cut out to be the Jets' franchise quarterback in the first place.
Instead of needlessly fretting over what this might mean for the future, the Jets' powerbrokers — Ryan, general manager Mike Tannenbaum and owner Woody Johnson — need to take a cold, hard look at the short-term. Actually, they should first harken back to their collective mindset last March, when they reacted to Tebow's sudden availability — after the Denver Broncos signed Peyton Manning — by going out and getting him.
They did not do this at gunpoint. To pry the world's most polarizing quarterback (and a seventh-round draft pick) from the Broncos, the Jets gave up fourth- and sixth-round selections — and the right to act surprised when the outside started viewing him as a viable option should Sanchez and/or the team struggle.
Ryan and Tannenbaum may have sold the move as an attempt to turn Tebow into a threat out of the Wildcat offense and to serve as a change-of-pace artist who'd spell Sanchez in specific situations, but they also understood the larger ramifications.
The potential for Tebow Time meant pressure on Sanchez, intensive media and fan interest and, inevitably, the kind of locker-room curiosity in the event of unmet expectations that Greene's comments suggest.
The Jets went out and got Tebow for a reason. For all of his obvious flaws, including poor mechanics and a seeming lack of aptitude for reading defenses, he did something momentous in 2011. Tebow stepped in for Kyle Orton at a time when the Broncos' season was essentially slipping away and helped spur his team to an unlikely run of dramatic victories, including a last-minute triumph over the Jets almost exactly a year ago.
While there seemed to be supernatural forces at work, be they spiritual or coincidental, during many of Tebow's triumphs, his performance in the Broncos' first-round playoff upset of the Pittsburgh Steelers, which included 316 passing yards and a dramatic, game-winning touchdown throw in overtime, was decidedly legit.
I can understand why the Jets would prefer Sanchez over Tebow if the team was still contending for a playoff spot, or if the quarterback was performing at a reasonably high level. Right now, neither of those things is true. New York has lost three consecutive games and five of its last six to slip to 3-6 — technically still in the playoff hunt, but in need of the type of shocking turnaround that Tebow provoked in Denver last season.
Sanchez ranks 14th in the AFC with a 70.4 passer rating. He is completing just 52 percent of his passes and has thrown a mere 10 touchdowns, against nine interceptions. He has his share of legitimate excuses, from the season-ending injury to top wideout Santonio Holmes to the pressure caused by the team's defensive struggles (and another season-ending injury to the Jets' best player, cornerback Darrelle Revis). Yet the bottom line is that he hasn't been very good.
There seems to be a sense that if Sanchez is benched he'll never be able to recover, but I don't think the majority of people in the Jets' locker room see it that way.
"The light always shines brighter on a quarterback," linebacker Bart Scott said Wednesday afternoon. "When a team isn't winning, the most popular person is the backup quarterback. If they do it this way [keeping Sanchez as the starter], we need to find a way to win games. If they do it the other way, they do it the other way, and we still have the same challenge.
"At the end of the day, we all have ups and downs. We all have good seasons and bad seasons. It's part of football, and we all move on and keep fighting."
In other words, if this were a debate about whether to make a change at inside linebacker, few people would be worrying about the potential damage to Scott's psyche.
I realize that franchise quarterback is a different animal, but I'm also baffled as to why the Jets would have traded for Tebow had they not been prepared for the possibility of playing him. The rest is just noise: That whole Wildcat thing hasn't been much of a game-changer, and while making Tebow the up-back on the punt team was intriguing — and despite Ryan's glowing portrayal of the move's effect on the Jets' net-punting average at his Wednesday press conference — it all seems a little underwhelming.
Tebow, like it or not, is a quarterback. He's a quarterback who has had success in the NFL, specifically when it comes to bringing a team back from the brink. At this point, wouldn't Ryan and Tannenbaum want to give him a shot and see if he has another revival in him? If not, what would it take to make a switch?
Had Sanchez gotten injured, we might already have seen whether Tebow was capable of giving this stagnant offense a spark. Asked specifically what his confidence level in Tebow would be if the backup were thrust into action under such circumstances, Ryan said, "I think it would be extremely high. Here's a guy that took a team to the playoffs with him leading [it to a 7-4 record] when he was in [a starting] role. That's another reason we got him — we were confident [in him] if something were to happen to Mark. … In that case, I think we could win with Tim."
Obviously, something doesn't add up. One possibility is that Ryan is flat-out lying — that he doesn't have much faith in Tebow and shudders at the possibility of having to start him. It's even plausible that, in the event of an injury to Sanchez, Ryan would instead turn to third-stringer Greg McElroy and keep Tebow in his specialist role.
If this is the case, Tebow's notoriously poor presentation in practice could certainly be impacting Ryan's mindset. It's not as if the coach and the Jets' other players haven't noticed the way the backup quarterback sometimes struggles on the practice field.
"He does," Greene confirmed. "I'm not gonna lie. His mechanics, his throwing … not looking like a normal NFL quarterback. But you know what? He's a football player. He makes stuff happen."
To expand upon Greene's point: Tebow looked lousy in practice last year, too. Given that this wasn't exactly a secret, the Jets' powerbrokers had to know this when they made the trade. Thus, if Tebow still looks shaky during the week, this shouldn't have any impact on how they feel about him. With Tebow, the magic is supposed to happen during game time — that's the whole point.
For what it's worth, Scott doesn't share Greene's assessment. "I don't think he looks bad in practice," the linebacker said of Tebow. "We all have hiccups. Wednesday practice is always sloppy — we're dealing with new game plans and learning as we go. You get refined by Friday; that's why we call it Fast Friday. I think he's like the rest of us."
Another theory as to why Ryan isn't playing Tebow is that the coach may never have been on board with the decision to acquire him in the first place. Some believe that Johnson, the owner, spearheaded the move as a potential boon to marketing and ticket-sales.
If this was indeed the case, then it's time for Johnson to step up and ensure that his new toy gets a test drive. While ordering one's coach to make a change at the sport's pivotal position is bad form —yeah, Bud Adams, I'm talking to you — there are ways of influencing the situation without issuing an explicit decree.
Simply put, if Johnson made it known to his coach that he was highly interested in seeing what Tebow could do, Ryan would be savvy enough to pick up on the vibe and make the quarterback change his idea.
To Ryan's credit, he is demonstrating his loyalty to a quarterback he still seems to believe is capable of achieving great feats for the franchise. Certainly, Sanchez is appreciative of the support.
"Hey man, it's all part of it," Sanchez said of the recent talk about his job security. "I'm good, all things considered. My teammates know I'm gonna stay positive, keep working and fight for the guys in this locker room."
I suspect Sanchez's teammates also believe that, if he does get benched, he'll try to channel his disappointment and frustration into something positive down the road, rather than shriveling up and bemoaning his fate. As Greene said of his quarterback's ability to deal with outside drama, "He handles it real, real well, but just seeing it from my perspective, it has to be hard — playing for a New York team, the media, the pressure to win right away. … It has to be hard, but he's good at blocking stuff out."
As for Tebow, whose relentlessly positive personality was on full display in his comments to reporters on Wednesday, I have a feeling that even the Jets who throw around words like "terrible" to describe him have to be at least a little bit curious about what the NFL's most celebrated backup might be able to do if given a chance.
"If he plays," Scott said, "we're gonna rally behind him."
Switching to Tebow could spark the Jets, or it could cause an even more conspicuous flameout. Ryan, Tannenbaum and Johnson knew those possibilities existed eight months ago, and they eagerly stepped up and traded for a player whose true value is yet to be determined.
It's time to find out how much Tebow is worth to this franchise, no matter whose feelings it might hurt.
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