Florham Park, New Jersey. Tim Tebow ran out onto the field for the New York Jets’ first offensive play of the NFL season as a starter.
Not at quarterback, of course. That’s Mark Sanchez’s job. But in his Jets debut last Sunday, there was Tebow lined up on the right side of the line as a slot receiver — officially listed as a tight end.
The crowd cheered, Tebow ran a harmless route and then headed back to the sideline. A sprinkling of Tebow and the wildcat package turned out to be more than enough in a 48-28 rout of the Buffalo Bills.
“I’m definitely competitive, but the No. 1 thing to help competitiveness is winning football games,” said Tebow, who was involved in only 10 of the Jets’ offensive snaps. “However I can help this team to win football games, that’s the ultimate goal.”
That’s coming from a guy who has always expressed a desire to be a starting quarterback in the NFL, and led Denver to the playoffs in that role after earning the job last season.
Tebow is undoubtedly the biggest personality on the Jets, and very possibly the most popular athlete in the entire New York sports scene. Whether his impact on the field matches all that hype, well, that’s for opponents to find out.
With the Jets, at least through the first game, he’s merely a contributor who ran five times for 11 yards and didn’t throw a pass. But he’s a player who bothers opponents because they have to plan for him, regardless. That includes Pittsburgh, which might see Tebow maybe as little as Buffalo did. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin knows better, though, than to brush off Tebow’s presence.
“I know that we better be prepared for more than what I saw him do in the game on Sunday,” Tomlin said this week.
After all, Tomlin and the Steelers have seen him do a lot more. Tebow knocked them out of the playoffs last season with an 80-yard touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas in overtime in Denver last season.
That Tebow unnerves opponents is exactly why the Jets — particularly coach Rex Ryan, general manager Mike Tannenbaum, offensive coordinator Tony Sparano and owner Woody Johnson — wanted him on their team.
Some have said New York’s trade for the quarterback in March was purely a publicity stunt. The Jets have said it makes them a better offense, one with an unpredictable presence that might be unmatched in the entire league. After all, Tebow is a 6-foot-3, 250-pound (1.90-meter, 114-kilo), rock-solid guy who can run it, toss it or throw a block — as he did on a few special teams plays last week.
The element of surprise is part of the playbook, and one that can’t be overlooked. Just because the Jets used him sparingly in Week 1 doesn’t mean there won’t be a whole lot of Tebow Time this Sunday at Pittsburgh, or next week at Miami, and so on.
Tebow ran only two true wildcat plays against the Bills, with Sanchez lined up at wideout. Most of his other snaps came out of the read-option, and for only the fifth time in his NFL career, he didn’t throw a pass.
He was surprisingly booed for the first time as a member of the Jets when he failed to gain anything on a second-and-6 play from the Bills 12. Some fans and media reasoned that it might have taken away from the rhythm Sanchez was in with the offense at that point, forcing Tebow into the mix unnecessarily.
“It’s something that I’ve had to do before,” Tebow said of his various roles. “My first year in Denver and my first four games last year, and also my freshman year at Florida [University], I had a role similar to this.”
But he’s also coming off a magical season in which he had comeback after comeback and was the starting quarterback for a playoff team.
“I’m not looking back at the past. I’m just trying to do the best I can with the present and look forward to the future,” he said.
Tebow has consistently said all the right things since coming to New York, refusing to add any fuel to the fire by saying he wants to be out there more or thinks he could do more. Sanchez, to his credit, has also been careful with what he has said when it comes to Tebow, and entered the season more focused than ever.
“I think he’s handled everything well,” Sanchez said of Tebow, whom he considers a friend. “He’s really come in and fit in with our team. He’s tried to be a team guy all the way. He understands that he’s going to get opportunities to touch the football and when he does, he wants to make the most of them . . . If I were in his shoes, I don’t know how I’d handle some of the stuff he goes through, but it’s fun to talk about in the quarterbacks room.”