FLORHAM PARK, N.J. >> Tim Tebow came to Broadway in March as a backup, already a bona fide star.
NFL fans nationwide caught sight of him on TV last season, leading the Denver Broncos to one improbable comeback after another and then into the playoffs. His force-of-nature style was the talk of the league, with fans “Tebowing” at games and parties, in their offices and living rooms. When actor Robert Downey dropped to a knee and bowed his head in prayerful pose at the Oscars, everyone was in on the joke.
Then Gotham and the Jets beckoned — along with the tantalizing prospect to build his brand further and someday take over from Mark Sanchez as quarterback of one of the league’s highest-profile teams. With the Jets 2-2 coming off a disheartening 34-0 loss to San Francisco, scores of disappointed New Yorkers are ready for a change, ready to find out if they got a fierce competitor, as advertised, or a publicity stunt.
And they wonder why “Tebow Time” shouldn’t start on Monday night against the undefeated Houston Texans.
He may be wondering the same thing. The easy smile that was Tebow’s trademark when he arrived seven months earlier isn’t flashing quite so much lately.
“It’s just frustrating to lose, and to lose like this,” Tebow said quietly in the Jets’ locker room Sunday after the 49ers game.
Jets coach Rex Ryan and new offensive coordinator Tony Sparano kept their plans for Tebow and the wildcat package under wraps, even as the starting offense failed to score a touchdown in the preseason. Now, with the offense still sputtering under Sanchez, it seems clear that Tebow needs to be a bigger part of things, and right now.
Tebow has played in just 31 of the Jets’ 257 offensive snaps through four games, including only seven Sunday. He has lined up at quarterback a few times, as a fullback at others and even gets to block as the personal punt protector. He also went out for a pass at Miami two weeks ago — and Sanchez plunked him in the back of the head.
He said all the right things after the 49ers’ blowout, as he always seems to do, careful about not exacerbating what could soon be a full-blown quarterback controversy.
“I get excited any time they ask me to go out there and help the team,” Tebow said, brushing aside question after question about his limited playing time.
Tebow said last week that compared to this time a year ago in Denver, he’s actually playing more. That is, until the Broncos decided to bench Kyle Orton after a 1-4 start and gave Tebow a chance. What followed was an amazing run of five fourth-quarter comebacks in eight games as Tebow led Denver all the way to the playoffs — and an overtime win at home over Pittsburgh.
Success came despite constant criticism about his mechanics and inability to play well until the final quarter of games. But somehow, he found a way to win. Just as he did at the University of Florida, where he won the Heisman Trophy in 2007 and played on two national title-winning teams in 2006 and 2008.
The Jets had a front-row seat to Tebow’s heroics last season, when he capped a 95-yard scoring drive in the final moments with a 20-yard touchdown run — a finish that upset Ryan so much, he needed to be examined for a severe case of indigestion.
Despite all that, Broncos boss and Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway never viewed Tebow as the answer in Denver. So, when it appeared the Broncos were closing in on signing Peyton Manning, Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum started thinking about some possibilities.
“Hey, what do you think,” he asked Ryan as they waited for a flight at Newark Liberty International Airport, “about getting Tebow?”
Ryan’s eyes lit up. So, did Tannenbaum’s. Owner Woody Johnson was totally on board, too, and so was Sparano.
A few days later, Tebow was a member of the Jets as a backup QB, not THE QB. Not after the team had just signed Sanchez to a contract extension. Rather, Tebow was heading East to be a versatile threat on the field, and a marketing touchdown with ticket and jersey sales. Maybe not quite the next Joe Namath, but pretty darned close.
Which brings us to the current situation — a .500 team with a quarterback having trouble hitting a target and a team riddled with injuries, including star cornerback Darrelle Revis — the Jets’ best defensive player — and wide receiver Santonio Holmes — their biggest offensive playmaker. Both are out for the rest of the season.
“I just know in my heart, right now, that this is not the time,” a defiant Ryan said of making a quarterback change. “I think Tim is an outstanding player, and I think Mark is. Right now, I think Mark gives us our best opportunity to win.”
So, yes, the team is fully invested in him. Sanchez is guaranteed $20.5 million over this year and next. Switching quarterbacks now likely would devastate him mentally, a dangerous proposition especially if Tebow was equally disappointing. That would leave the team with two disgruntled quarterbacks and few other options.
Some players won’t even consider the possibility of a swap.
“Mark is our quarterback,” linebacker Bart Scott said. “We believe in him and the team will rally around him. It’s not all his fault.”
Ryan and his coaching staff took two days to huddle with each other to figure out what the problems are, and to hit the field Wednesday armed with answers.
More playing time for Tebow should be among them. That doesn’t mean Sanchez will be benched. In Sparano, the Jets have an offensive coordinator who knows how to use the wildcat effectively, as he did for a few years as the head coach with the Dolphins.
“This is a resilient football team,” Ryan said. “Woe is me? How many people are going to feel sorry for the New York Jets? I know the answer to that: nobody.”
New York’s run-first approach has flopped so far, but Tebow is a 250-pound mountain of muscle who can help. He can line up next to Sanchez for a few series at a time. That would force defenses to be on their toes, uncertain if Tebow will run the ball or throw it — or if Sanchez will.
“We haven’t been as successful at running the wildcat as I thought we would,” Ryan said. “I think that’s fair to say, but again, without question, I’m not ready to give up on him. I think the wildcat is tough to defend and I’ve always said that.”
It’s on the Jets’ coaching staff to see what they’ve really got with Tebow.
Is he purely a publicity stunt, as some have speculated since the day he arrived? Or, is Tebow the guy who can help save the Jets’ season — just as he did in Denver?
“I’m ready to do whatever they ask me to do,” Tebow said. “That’s my mentality, and that’s the way it has been since I got here.”