DETROIT – Tim Tebow spent most of this Thursday night – perhaps one of his fleeting few remaining as an NFL quarterback – standing near the 50-yard line of the New England Patriots sideline.
When the Pats were on defense, he'd sometimes casually flip a ball around by himself. When they were on offense, he'd put his helmet on, ready to go in – whether at QB or any other position the coaching staff might request.
"You just prepare yourself and be ready for whenever your number is called," Tebow said.
Tebow's number was never called.
Sixty-eight Patriots saw action in the 40-9 loss to the Detroit Lions in the third week of preseason play. It was a critical chance to make New England's eventual 53-man opening week roster, or at least put something on film for another team to spot and scoop you up.
Tebow wasn't among them.
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Tom Brady played quarterback for the first half. Ryan Mallett played it for the second half. And despite "Tebow" chants from bored Lions fans who wanted to see the famed former Heisman Trophy winner, Tebow just kept standing there, waiting and waiting for a chance that never came.
Afterwards Patriots coach Bill Belichick was asked: Why did you only play two quarterbacks?
"Because we only played two quarterbacks," he said.
Belichick likes to remind that evaluations are made over the course of an entire training camp, not one game or one play. Still, this wasn't a good sign for Tebow.
While it's likely he survives Tuesday's cut down from 90 to 75 players, and it's likely he sees action in next Thursday's final preseason game against the New York Giants, this was not a jolt of confidence that he'll make the final roster on Aug. 31. Or make anyone's final roster, for that matter.
These may be the final days of the Tebow experiment and despite his oversized following and big persona, it could just end coldly and quietly, as so many NFL careers do.
Belichick often carries just two quarterbacks during the season. Brady is No. 1. Mallett is the established backup. That isn't changing. Tebow needs to show enough to convince the organization that his development is worth eating up a slot that could go to a player that can add depth during actual games.
Perhaps most surprising on Thursday wasn't that Tebow never lined up at quarterback, but that he never lined up anywhere.
This is a franchise that values versatility and this is a player of considerable athletic skill (even if his passing accuracy is often lacking). New England got slaughtered in this game, so it's not like everyone else was playing well. Tebow was one of just three healthy players who didn't see any action.
"I'm not going to try to read anything with feelings," Tebow said. "It's just to be ready. I'm just doing what they tell me to do."
It didn't seem like coaches told him to do anything on Thursday. Tebow instead tried to take "mental reps," essentially hearing the play call and from the sideline trying to figure out what Brady and Mallett were doing and why.
"Try to get a rep every single time," Tebow said. "You may not be on the field but you can still get a rep."
Even for the eternally positive Florida product, that's a tough one to sell.
"I'm a blessed individual," he said, when asked if this was frustrating. "I'm happy to be here and whatever I'm asked to do I'm going to do."
Next week, back in Foxborough, Brady will play sparingly, if at all, to avoid injury. Mallett, who was a pedestrian 11-of-22 for 96 yards and one touchdown, will get the bulk of the action.
Tebow, presumably, will get a final chance to show something, anything, to make this team. He's currently 5-of-19 passing in the preseason. He doesn't seem to fit into any other role, even on special teams.
He could be fighting for his career, because if it's not here with New England, which claimed him after he spent six weeks available as an unrestricted free agent, then where does he hook on?
"You just prepare," he said of getting any chance. "And what you're asked to do, you do 100 percent with everything you have. You want everything to go well. If it's not, there are going to be ups and downs. That's what life is and you just have to handle it the best you possibly can."
He kept smiling, you can say that. Maybe it was forced or maybe it was real, but it was still there. Tebow has always been a stand-up guy, in the greatest of times and the now, perhaps, the most uncertain. But he never stops smiling.
Instead he stuffed his pads in a blue Patriots bag with his No. 5 on the side. He changed into a grey suit. He headed out to the bus, grabbing a turkey with bacon sandwich for the ride to the airport.
The trip here had been fruitless, pointless. He had been ready, as always, for his chance.
The question is whether he stands one anymore.
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