Far from dampening his will to win, Tebow’s religious faith fuels it. According to the “muscular Christianity” Tebow embodies (see “Manliness Is Next to Godliness,” right), God may allow you to win, but he doesn’t win for you. You do that yourself, using your belief as a means to that end. Tebow wears those useless “power bracelets” that are big among athletes, including one that reads PRAY STRONG. This is the sports equivalent of a kitty grasping onto a tree branch on a poster in the dentist’s office, encouraging you to “hang in there.” Yet I am certain that this works for him. What makes Tebow a “winner,” as he is inevitably called before anything else, is an utter lack of self-doubt. Whatever else you think about his faith, it seems to be a performance aid.
Mark Sanchez is not a man of faith, or at least has come to a spiritual compromise with the whole “save yourself for marriage” business. Sanchez has been the golden boy since birth. Raised in Orange County, he won California’s Player of the Year award. Going to USC was a logical decision, but he started only one season there before declaring for the draft; the Jets, the franchise of Namath, picked him and immediately anointed him the starter. Thanks mostly to a ferocious defense, the Jets reached the AFC Championship Game each of Sanchez’s first two seasons. With that came a GQ cover and celebrity girlfriends. Sanchez had arguably never faced adversity in his life.
Until last year. Many had picked the Jets to make the Super Bowl, but only if Sanchez progressed at the rate a third-year quarterback would be expected to. He didn’t: He was shaky from the very beginning, and by mid-season, “anonymous sources” within the team were sniping at him in the papers. Sanchez threw three interceptions in the final loss, one that cost the Jets a shot at the playoffs, and the disgruntled receivers weren’t hiding it anymore. The season ended, infamously, with wide receiver Santonio Holmes running an open insurrection on the sidelines. Sanchez, the man so often described as “poised,” looked shaken. Still: Although the Jets flirted with Peyton Manning, they quickly gave Sanchez a contract extension after Manning passed on New York. All seemed settled: Sanchez seemed secure. And then came the Tebow trade.
There are so many ways this story could go down. The most boring scenario is the one the Jets are hoping for: Sanchez holds on to the job all year and Tebow helps out the wildcat formation and all’s well. For all the frustration with Sanchez last year, it’s obvious, even to a laughably untrained eye (like mine), that Sanchez has a stronger, more accurate arm. You can see how this might be the year Sanchez emerges as the quarterback the Jets have been waiting for him to become, with Tebow turning out to be a dynamic, if inconsistent, Renaissance man.
But that will require Sanchez, essentially, to be perfect, at least in a way he has never been in his career. The initial fear of this trade is still here: The first time Sanchez throws an interception, the calls for Tebow will begin. They’ll get louder after the second one. After the third, they might be too loud for Ryan to ignore. Maybe Tebow will come in and be the savior, so to speak, he was in Denver last year and in Florida in college. Maybe he won’t. (The dirty secret around football is that we all might be making a massive deal about a competition between two mediocre quarterbacks.) But unless the Jets start the season red-hot (which, with their schedule, won’t be easy), it’s difficult to see a situation where the anticipation of this exact scenario doesn’t dominate the entire first half of the season.
And hey, maybe that was the plan all along. You’re not talking about the defending champion Giants right now. You’re talking about the Jets, Sanchez, and Tebow. Here, at the same time, in the same position, are two of the biggest personalities in the game. Maybe it’ll be something amazing. Maybe it’ll completely blow up in their faces. No matter what, you’ll be watching. If nothing else, the Jets have made certain of that.