“He burps and it’s news,” says a New York Jets beat writer to no one in particular, though I’m one of the fifteen people in the press box within earshot, so I write it down. The most apt way I can describe the 2012 Jets, and the reason that they, and not the Super Bowl champion New York Giants, are featured in this magazine this week, is that I don’t immediately know which Jets quarterback he’s referring to. Either way, he is not wrong: If I were to notice Mark Sanchez or Tim Tebow burp, I would absolutely write that down, too.
I know that Eli Manning just won his second Super Bowl MVP award and hosted Saturday Night Live, but there’s a reason SportsCenter was broadcasting live from Jets camp this summer, why Rex Ryan is suddenly the third most interesting person on his own team, why the president of the United States is weighing in on the Jets’ depth chart. (“I don’t like the idea of a quarterback controversy at the start of a season,” offered Obama. “So if I was a Jets fan, I’d be pretty nervous.”) Sports fans love charismatic, magazine-idol quarterbacks, and they love a good old-fashioned quarterback controversy. The Jets have provided us with both.
The situation is all so black-and-white perfect: It takes everything we love and hate about sports and splits it into opposing sides. Sinner vs. Saint. Talent vs. Heart. Flash vs. Substance. Logic vs. Faith. West Coast vs. East Coast. Ladies’ Man vs. Word of God. Brain vs. Brawn. Hell, Righty vs. Lefty. The NFL, let alone one city, hardly seems big enough for just one of those guys. Now there are two of them, and they are on the same team, and that team plays in New York.
To hear the Jets tell it, trading for one of the biggest stars in sports was no big deal, as basic a personnel move as adding an extra guy for punt coverage. “We just thought Tim was a good guy to have in here,” says new offensive coordinator Tony Sparano, famous for installing the “wildcat” offense when he was coach of the Miami Dolphins. “We can use him a lot of ways. Mark Sanchez is our quarterback. Tim Tebow is our lots-of-things.” Across the board, the Jets talk like this. Mark Sanchez is the Jets’ leader, the man behind center. Tim Tebow, he’s more like a unicorn: a unique creature whose utility is less apparent than its appeal. Tebow is also fun to have on the roster; his versatility makes him a Swiss Army knife for gadget-obsessed boys. And his outsize popularity seems to be amusing to the team: In camp, I saw Sanchez and Tebow playing catch together, and when Sanchez grabbed one ball, he actually knelt and mock-Tebowed. The Shirtless Tebow moment from camp, when Tebow took off his jersey and pads and ran through a rainstorm, became a big joke, but it’s worth noting that when it happened, every single person there (including me) stopped what they were doing and watched him. He’s a magnetic character.
That would resolve it, then, as far as the Jets are concerned: Mark Sanchez is the quarterback. Tim Tebow is the “football player.” Together, they, like the rest of the Jets players, are Just Here to Do Whatever It Takes to Win. There is no controversy. Everyone is friends. But nobody believes them, and, frankly, nobody should. Because the last thing in the world Tim Tebow considers himself is a unicorn.
Tim Tebow wants to win as much as any player in the NFL. And he sure as hell—sorry, “heck”—isn’t giving up any starting-quarterback position to anybody. Why should he? He just finished one of the most impressive runs by a young quarterback in recent memory, winning seven of eight games (three in overtime) after taking over as starter and beating the Pittsburgh Steelers in the playoffs (also in overtime), electrifying a nation. In any other context, Tebow would have been heralded as a franchise savior for Denver. But the Broncos wanted a more “traditional” passer, and when Peyton Manning came on the market, Tebow was traded. He’s the first quarterback to be traded in the off-season after winning a playoff game since Brett Favre in 2008.
While the Jets and Sanchez do their best to minimize any controversy, Tebow, while certainly not fanning any flames, concedes nothing. “I’m a quarterback,” he says when asked about the much-discussed decision to have him practice on punt coverage in addition to quarterback in training camp. “It’s just now I get to be a quarterback on the first three downs and a quarterback on fourth down too.”