FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – And so in the fourth quarter that was always his, on a night he needed magic, there came a pass from Tim Tebow's past.
It wasn't a great throw. But it came out of his left hand straight and hard and true. It was too high to be intercepted but not out of the reach of a New England Patriots receiver named Quentin Sims who snatched the ball, stopped, turned and ran untouched for a touchdown. And it said this can't be the end of Tebow's career.
There are these moments that come from the most confounding quarterback in the NFL. Good moments. Exciting moments. Moments that say he deserves a place on a team's roster. Tim Tebow can look dreadful at times. He can throw passes that wobble. He has instances when he holds onto the ball for what seems like forever as the defenders pile in. He is not a quarterback you start now in the NFL. But he belongs here.
The Patriots, about whom the words "angel dust" and "flophouse" are routinely used these last few days, could do worse than keep Tebow on their roster. He does not deserve to be cut. He should not go home. Somewhere, somehow, New England is going to need him and there is going to come one of those moments that will justify his space in the Patriots' locker room.
Thursday, in some of his most expansive playing time this preseason, we saw the best and worst of Tebow. We saw his touchdown to Sims and we saw another, thrown also to Sims, just before game's end. We saw Tebow scramble from a New York Giants pass rush, sliding for a first down. We saw him fake a tackler and dive for extra yards. He threw for 91 yards and ran for another 30. We saw, too, a pass thrown too short that was intercepted and we saw other balls thrown too far or too low. But the total package is too promising to throw away. Yes, Tebow can look dreadful at times, but those moments of effectiveness make him worth the roster spot.
There is a line football people use when they talk about Tebow. They call him a "winner." They say this even as they cringe when describing his throwing motion, his robotic windup and the footwork he still struggles to get right. There's enough "winner" in Tebow to keep him in the NFL.
His future will not be decided until Saturday evening. This is when the Patriots are required to turn in their final 53-man roster to the NFL. Given the way Tebow had played in the preseason – less winner and more dreadful – Thursday's final exhibition game seemed the ultimate test. He had only the second half to prove he belonged. At the end, his 6-for-11 passing, two touchdowns and 83.7 passer rating should be enough to earn him a third quarterback spot that New England coach Bill Belichick often doesn't keep.
Not that Belichick would concede anything on Thursday night.
"I think we had a lot of guys that stepped up and competed well tonight," Belichick said when asked about Tebow. "We'll see how it looks on film and take a closer look at everybody."
But what is it that Tebow can bring to the Patriots?
"Whatever we do will be whatever we think is in the best interest of the football team, the 2013 team, whatever that is at any position," Belichick said. "We'll do what we think is best for the team."
"Whoever we keep will be because of the value they bring to the team."
Well what is it that makes him valuable?
"The things we feel he can do that will help our team."
Later at his locker, Tebow smiled and shrugged. Some people tried to get him to admit he had never had to sweat out the final cuts on a roster before, ever in his life. He looked to the carpet and smiled. He seemed embarrassed. He didn't want to say the word "cut," so he said nothing about that.
He did say he had learned a lot this summer. He said he has come to understand the offense and get his rhythm. He said he wished he could take the interception back, that he led his receiver too far inside.
When asked what he would bring to the Patriots he didn't hesitate:
"Someone that will just work hard, loves the game of football, will always hopefully, Lord willing, have a great attitude, a great work ethic and someone that tries to be an encourager in here."
The mistake is to think Belichick will keep Tebow because he is some great locker room leader. He is not. He is enthusiastic, exceptionally friendly, positive and kind. He is not a leader, not like Tom Brady or Peyton Manning or any of the other big quarterbacks around whom a room spins. He is a somewhat socially awkward, quiet man who can seem a bit like a loner. But this is fine. The Patriots don't need another Brady, they don't need someone taking charge of a room. They just need someone who will practice hard and study game film and ask questions and deliver a "winner" moment when it is needed.
It's not inconceivable that Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will find a role for Tebow as a short-yardage quarterback, able to duck and dive for a first down on a fourth-and-one.
On Thursday, Tebow came into the stadium that was the location of his downfall. In January of 2012 he was possibly the most famous player in the NFL, a worldwide sensation, fresh from the touchdown thrown in overtime of the playoff game against Pittsburgh. Then, in this second-round game against the Patriots, he fell flat. His Denver Broncos lost, within weeks he was traded to the New York Jets and his career slowly deteriorated.
His pass to Sims was his first touchdown since that game-winner against the Steelers.
Maybe it was his last great moment. Maybe his NFL life is days away from being over. But ending it now would be a mistake. There's just enough "winner" to not say "goodbye."