When Tim Tebow was traded to the New York Jets, he instantly became the NFL’s most famous backup quarterback. Inserted as an impromptu starter toward the end of his first two seasons with the Denver Broncos, Tebow was fresh from an unlikely playoff run and almost seemed too big for the Big Apple.
While the former Florida standout is controversial for everything from his throwing motion to his praying stance, it only seemed like a matter of time before he would crack the Jets’ starting lineup. Despite showing some flashes during his first two seasons, Mark Sanchez was a wobbly quarterback. He seemed to regress last season and practically crawl back into the womb this one.
Yet when Rex Ryan finally decided to give Sanchez the hook, Tebow didn’t get his chance. Instead third-stringer Greg McElroy was given the job. McElroy had thrown the Jets’ first offensive touchdown in preseason and led them to victory in a 7-6 snoozefest over the Arizona Cardinals.
A surprise to some fans, perhaps, but the handwriting had long been on the wall. The Jets clearly lacked confidence in Tebow, using him sparingly (and predictably) even in the vaunted wildcat package. The fact that they never seriously considered pulling the plug on Sanchez’s turnover machine suggests Jets management didn’t think Tebow gave them a better chance to win than Kellen Clemens or the prehistoric Mark Brunell before him.
Oh well. At least Sanchez never wiped his nose on Tebow.
Even when Tebow was winning games in Denver, he wasn’t management’s choice to lead the franchise. A traditional pocket passer was needed, John Elway, traditional pocket passer, decreed. So they got one of the best in the business in the form of Peyton Manning.
Why did the Jets even bother to acquire Tebow if they weren’t going to use him? Were they envious of the headlines being grabbed by their Super Bowl champion neighbors?
It is impossible to know. But the Jets’ mishandling of Tebow isn’t the only quarterback head-scratcher in professional football this year.
In Buffalo, Ryan Fitzpatrick hasn’t exactly covered himself in glory despite a flurry of touchdown passes. He seems to make up for his bouts of productivity with intercepted errant throws. Or perhaps as a product of those liberal lovers of social justice at Harvard University, he doesn’t think it’s fair to just throw touchdown passes to his own teammates.
But surely the team’s ownership is more hard-headed about the matter. Nevertheless, the Bills signed Tarvaris Jackson as a backup quarterback in the offseason. Jackson’s bust will never appear in Canton, but he has led a team to the playoffs and acquitted himself reasonably well as a starter.
At the very least, one might think Jackson would have been used to push Fitzpatrick when he started to stumble. Or once the Bills were eliminated from playoff contention, perhaps it might have made sense to see how Jackson could do for a game or two.
Jackson hasn’t even been active in this season, buried on the depth chart behind Tyler Thigpen. Thigpen’s résumé as a starter is if anything less impressive than Jackson’s. There have been rumors that Jackson has struggled with the playbook. The players on the field aren’t exactly doing a bang-up job executing it either.
Then there is the case of Alex Smith in San Francisco. Smith was the first overall pick in the 2005 NFL draft, but he struggled. He was yanked in and out of the lineup. His rookie season he threw just one touchdown pass to 11 interceptions. Smith endured boos and jeers from his own fans.
Like the rest of the San Francisco 49ers franchise, Smith turned it all around when Jim Harbaugh became head coach in 2011. He led his team all the way to the NFC Championship. The mistakes that kept them out of the Super Bowl were not his.
Smith continued with another strong campaign this year. He completed a league-leading 70 percent of his passes. He threw more than twice as many touchdowns as interceptions. The 49ers went 6-2-1 with Smith at quarterback.
Then suddenly Smith got a concussion. He was replaced by backup Colin Kaepernick, who also proved effective. Smith never got off the bench. “It sucks,” he rather sensibly said of the situation. “I don’t know what else to say.”
Who could put it better? There is, of course, a case to be made for Kaepernick. He is more mobile. He can throw deep. He has already arguably made better use of aging wideout Randy Moss than Smith. Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Drew Brees each complete north of 30 touchdown passes a season, not the 17-18 that seems to be Smith’s ceiling.
But there is something a bit wrong with benching players merely for being injured, especially in a league that now claims to be obsessed with player safety. Will the next Alex Smith have a greater incentive to hide concussion symptoms if he has a talented backup looking over his shoulder?
Perhaps Brett Favre’s “iron man streak” of consecutive starts had something to do with Rodgers holding a clipboard next to him. Favre wanted to keep it that way.
The obvious rejoinder is this is how Brady won his job in New England. But here is the dirty secret: Drew Bledsoe — a great franchise quarterback and even greater gentleman — was struggling when he was injured. So was the team. Brady rejuvenated the franchise and likely would have eclipsed Bledsoe at some point even if he had stayed healthy.
This season isn’t even over yet and we already get a sense that the next one could be filled with similarly shattered dreams. Is Brandon Weeden going to be passed over by the new Cleveland Browns’ management like yesterday’s Colt McCoy? Will Tebow’s likely trip to Jackonsville relegate Blaine Gabbert to the David Garrard-heap of history?
In competition, there are inevitably winners and losers. That’s why we watch the game. But sometimes a quarterback has to worry about opponents in the front office more than on the field.