“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.”
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.