Take one poisoned locker room with a leadership vacuum and an embattled quarterback. Add Tim Tebow. Problem solved, right?
Well, maybe. By acquiring Tebow and a seventh-rounder for their fourth- and sixth-round picks in the 2012 draft, the Jets are making a small investment and hoping that they can turn Tebow into something resembling a motivational speaker who also happens to get onto the football field for five plays per game. They think they can control Tebowmania. And nobody, for better or worse, can do that.
In terms of his abilities as a football player (both tangible and intangible), this is about the right price for Tebow. He’s a very flawed quarterback with the ability to serve as an effective runner who can throw downfield for big plays. The Jets successfully employed a player like that from 2007-10, former Mizzou quarterback Brad Smith, who is now filling that “Slash” role for the Buffalo Bills. The Jets likely remember what Smith did and associate his absence in their offense with part of the reason why they declined last season, so I wouldn’t be shocked if they brought Tebow in to play that same role. He can play that part and have some value, but the Jets will have to find an active roster spot for him every week, which will be tricky. The Jets will do it, of course — they didn’t acquire Tebow to be a healthy scratch — but they will lose some value versus leaving a special-teamer or rotation player on defense on the active roster. They could also use Tebow as their primary backup if he beats out Drew Stanton in camp, but Stanton’s the better passer and would likely be the better full-time quarterback if Mark Sanchez gets hurt.
That’s the problem with this trade, though. What this deal does, more than anything, is place an incredible amount of pressure on Mark Sanchez. Sanchez was already under the microscope after failing to launch in 2011. Actually, Sanchez has failed to launch since 2009, but he was able to duck the criticism during his first two years with playoff runs that saw him raise his level of play and the team enjoy an inordinate amount of luck. (Remember those five consecutive missed field goals by the Bengals and Chargers? About a 6,000-to-1 shot.) Before this trade, the Jets actually aided Sanchez by backing him up with the relatively unusable Mark Brunell. As bad as Sanchez was, Jets fans knew that the team couldn’t turn the job over to a 41-year-old who hadn’t really played in three years. A Google search for “Brunell chants” and “Jets” returns five results right now. The fans might have booed, but they weren’t saying “Bru-nell.”
Now, they’re going to chant, write, and otherwise clamor for Tebow. There are some who will say it in August at training camp. Some will say it the first time Sanchez throws an interception in September. Others will wait until the Jets invariably lose to a team below their station, a defeat usually accompanied by a dismal Sanchez performance. Others might even wait until the Jets fail to make the playoffs, but let’s be clear: Unless Mark Sanchez takes an enormous leap forward, there’s going to be a quarterback controversy in New York. Maybe that’s what the Jets are hoping for, that the Tebow acquisition will spark some kind of fire under Sanchez to improve into the player the Jets thought he could be. You generally want to make that move before you give a player a contract extension that guarantees him $20.5 million over the next two seasons. Would the Jets really leave Sanchez on their bench at that sort of salary cap figure next year? Are they hoping that Tebow wins the job and then fails, turning Sanchez, now the backup, into a sympathetic figure? OK. We got carried away there. That’s not the goal.
As for the chemistry issue that Tebow’s going to solve — the Jets didn’t develop a locker room problem because Santonio Holmes was sullen or because Tony Richardson wasn’t around. They developed it because Rex Ryan fostered an emotional culture where the highs were too high and the lows were too low. I wrote about this in January in our eulogy for the Jets’ season:
“For all of his abilities to scheme up his defense and deflect criticism from his frequently embattled team, Ryan’s way to pump up his players is almost always to raise the emotional stakes even further. He’s like the boyfriend or girlfriend who tries to get his or her way in every fight by threatening to break up. That might work once or twice, but eventually, it’s going to become an empty threat. He’s been bailed out in the past by those long playoff runs, but after the loss to the Giants in Week 16, the Jets were always drawing very slim to their playoff hopes.”
Ryan’s goal in attracting so much attention was unquestionably to take some of the pressure off of his overmatched quarterback and focus it on himself. How is that going to be possible with Tebow around? And while Tebow was rightly regarded as a team leader during Denver’s miraculous run to the playoffs last season, do you remember reading many stories about Tebow controlling the locker room during Denver’s 1-4 start? You don’t, because he was a third-stringer. Unless Tebow actually plays a significant role in the Jets’ week-to-week performance, he’s unlikely to have a significant impact on their locker room. And if he plays a significant role in the Jets’ week-to-week performance, well, they might miss Sanchez.
So while the price was low for the Jets, it’s hard to see how Tebow really improves things in New York. His limited role in the offense will likely prevent him from having a bigger part to play in fostering the culture in the locker room, and the gigantic contract extension given to Sanchez two weeks ago either precludes Tebow from truly competing for the job or turns Sanchez into the world’s most expensive clipboard holder. It’s virtually impossible to find an outcome where Tebow harmoniously joins the organization, plays well, and improves team culture without the team losing something from Sanchez in the process. If Rex Ryan can make that happen, he’ll deserve all that camera time in January.