2:02 pm Sep. 10, 2012
They got it out of the way early, before the dust had settled from the pregame pageantry and kickoff, and before anticipation could build: Tim Tebow, the backup quarterback or cultural icon or overhyped media meme or fascinating strategic experiment in an otherwise risk-averse and homogenized league, was on the field for the 2012 Jets’ first play from scrimmage.
He was lined up as a quasi-tight end/slot receiver. This immediately bore out the Jets’ contention that they had a Tebow plan all along, just one they wouldn’t reveal during preseason games, when Tebow stuck to a vanilla job description of backup quarterback. By extension, it gave credence to the Jets’ repeated insistence that the preseason in general—a dismal, winless stretch during which the first and second-team offenses managed zero touchdowns—had no bearing on anything.
But now the games count, and there Tebow was in the slot. Of late, Rex Ryan has repeatedly likened Tebow to a “body blow” in boxing: You might not see the impact he makes, but the fact that other teams have to account for him yields hidden, attritional benefits.
On this play, he was lined up on the slot in the right and ran a short comeback route. Sanchez didn’t look his way, and instead threw a quick out to rookie Stephen Hill on the left. Hill was comfortably open—due to Tebow or not, we’ll never know—but the beleaguered quarterback and the rookie speed-demon with questionable hands failed to connect.
Here’s what supporters of the Tebow trade say: Don’t think of him as a glorified backup quarterback with alarmingly poor accuracy; rather, think of him as a good football player, and how could the Jets, whose offense that has been below average the whole Rex Ryan era, thumb their noses at a good football player?
Granted, Tebow’s talents often don’t fit the strictures of the modern N.F.L., where offenses put up record numbers based on quarterback precision, Tebow’s weakest attribute. But all it takes is a little creativity to unlock his talents, you see.
After Sanchez and Hill connected on a third down pass for the Jets’ first first down of the game, out trotted Tebow again. He lined up in the shotgun formation, took the snap, and handed it to running back Joe McKnight, who came in motion from the slot.
McKnight only gained three yards, but the idea of the play was compelling: Like Tebow, McKnight is a talented player but a square peg for the job description of an N.F.L. running back. He makes an impact as the best kick returner in the game—he led the league in kick return average last year—but the Jets think he can make more of one.
In other words, they think that a team with Tim Tebow and Joe McKnight won't be found lacking in offensive playmakers.
Mark Sanchez’s first interception of the 2012 season was perfectly Sanchez-esque.
While running on a designed rollout but with intended receiver Josh Cumberland covered a few yards in front of him, Sanchez tried to slip a pass to Cumberland by flipping the ball backhand, hoping to take the defense by surprise. Instead, he took Cumberland by surprise, and the ball went off Cumberland's fingertips and into the arms of Bills safety Bryan Scott.
But the Jets quickly regained possession and good field position thanks to a Darrelle Revis interception, and Sanchez quickly rebounded with a 21-yard completion to Jeremy Kerley.
On that positive note, he was taken out of the game, and Tebow went in. Lined up in the shotgun again, Tebow handed off to running back Bilal Powell for a 4-yard gain. This gave occasion for Marv Albert and Rich Gannon, the CBS broadcasters, to pose one of the skeptical questions of the offseason aloud: How can Sanchez be expected to get into a rhythm if he’s shuffling on and off with Tebow every few plays?
As if on cue to bear this skepticism out, on the next play, Sanchez badly overthrew Santonio Holmes, who was running down the right sideline with several yards of separation.
A pass-interference penalty prolonged that second Jets drive. A bruising 12-yard run by Shonn Greene gave the Jets a first-down at the Bills 16.
Tebow Time again, in the shotgun again. As cagey as the Jets have been about their plans for Tebow, it’s likely that the plurality of his plays will be read-options: He’ll line up in the shotgun and read a defensive lineman after the snap, which will determine whether he hands the ball to a running back or keep it himself.
Former University of Florida coach Urban Meyer is known as an early adapter of the spread option offense, for which the read option is a bread-and-butter play. The marriage between Tebow’s skills and Meyer’s philosophy is one reason that Tebow is on the short-list of the most celebrated college football players ever.
The Jets called a read-option, and Tebow read Bills defensive end Chris Kelsay. Rather then pursuing the flow of the linemen, Kelsay “stayed home” in a position to contain the running back. So instead of handing it to the running back, Tebow kept it himself, and bulled forward for a crowd-pleasing four-yard gain.
Tebow trotted off and Sanchez trotted on. On the next play, Sanchez spotted Jeremy Kerley in single coverage in the endzone and delivered a perfect pass. It was one of those throws that looks so good and repeateable, one of those throws that compels people to say about Sanchez that “he can make all the throws," as they before public sentiment soured on him last year.
7-0 Jets. Sanchez did his Brett Favre-thing and sprinted into the endzone to celebrate with his teammates.
Remember as recently as a year ago when the Jets were the fun team? This was a fun start.
Another horrible interception by Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.
On third down of the ensuing Jets possession, in the final minutes of the first quarter, Sanchez hit Santonio Holmes for a first down.
The Jets liked Holmes so much before last season that they gave him a $24 million guaranteed contract. Everyone hated so much him by the end of last season that fans lamented that his contract made him untradeable.
His on-field production and behavior dropped off to unacceptable levels. Ask most fans what they think of the rumor that he and Sanchez weren’t on speaking terms after week three of last season, and 90 percent will say they think it’s true. His on-field meltdown against Miami, during which he screamed at teammates in the huddle and was accused of not giving his best effort, became the enduring symbol of a lost, dysfunctional season.
Fan rancor toward Holmes began to crystallize two weeks before that. In the midst of a blowout loss in Philadelphia, with victory already a hopeless cause, Holmes caught a first down pass and defiantly mugged in his ritual celebration of a first down, sticking his arm out and extending the ball and then dropping it. It was taken as a tone-deaf gesture, and newspaper columnists and WFAN callers focused their ire on him as a symbol of a team that posed too much and won too little.
Holmes’s third-down catch in the first quarter yesterday was his first of the season. He posed in celebration again. This time, everybody loved it. A new context was everything.
On came Tebow, in the shotgun again. He faked an end-around to McKnight—the same play as earlier—and then charged up the gut for three yards.
Off came Tebow, and on came Sanchez, with the Jets at the 33-yard line. A well-executed stop-and-go to Stephen Hill along the sideline, and the Jets were flying to a 14-0 lead. And though it was probably correlative and not causative, it’s worth noting that both scores came immediately on the heels of a Tebow play. Body blow?
Half a quarter passed. In the interim, Jeremy Kerley, the Jet who was rumored to have alienated coaches with a poor offseason work ethic and who had missed most of training camp with a possibly related hamstring injury, returned a punt for a touchdown and a 21-0 Jets lead.
That was canceled out by a long touchdown run by the Bills’ C.J. Spiller, on which LaRon Landry and Bart Scott, two of the Jets’ most ferocious hitters, had a simultaneous chance to tackle Spiller but let him split them.
After a Jets first down, Tebow came in and executed a read-option to Greene, for four yards up the middle. Three clutch third down throws by Sanchez followed, getting the Jets deep into Bills territory. The weather, and the mood, was sunny and clear. It was a Southern California type of day, a Sanchez day.
With the Jets at the Bills’ 12-yard-line, out trotted Tebow, who decided to keep a read option but was stuffed for no gain. Some fans booed, with irony.
So much had been made about the potential for Jets fans to erode Sanchez’s confidence by taking sides on the Tebow-Sanchez question, which would be put up for referendum whenever they switched places on the field. What nobody had considered, it seemed, was the possibility that Jets fans might take Sanchez’s side over that of the most popular athlete in America.
The ineffective Tebow run forced the Jets into a 3rd and 6. Sanchez then hit Kerley for what should have been a first down, but a bad call brought fourth down and the field goal unit.
24-7, with two minutes remaining in the half.
A Bills fumble on the next drive gave the Jets possession again. It was good news for the Jets, of course, but it also invited the question of whether the Jets’ rout was the result of their own stellar play or of an opposing team that simply wasn’t ready for the season.
Either way, Sanchez led his team down in the two-minute drill, with the urgency to beat the ticking clock enough to keep Tebow off the field. A field goal made it 27-7, effectively sealing the game at halftime.
Cue the lopsided halftime stats, and a shot of Sanchez and Holmes yukking it up on the sideline, and Antonio Cromartie intercepting a Fitzpatrick pass—the most unconscionable of his three—and somersaulting into the endzone early in the third quarter to put the Jets up 34-7.
Then, Sanchez to Hill on a flea-flicker for 25 yards, and then Sanchez to Hill for a 17-yard touchdown. Now it was 41-7. Now fans were confident about their rookie receiver, who finished the game with 89 yards, and five catches on six targets. Now it seemed strange that many experts had picked the Bills to finish ahead of the Jets in the AFC East.
The Bills scored a touchdown, but nobody really cared.
On the Jets' next drive, on the last play of the third quarter, Tebow kept the read option and picked up three yards. It was his second-to-last carry in a game in which his impact was minimal: 5 carries, 11 yards, zero passing attempts.
He trotted to the sideline as Sanchez trotted on the field, and they slapped hands in passing. Tebow took up position next to Rex Ryan, and Ryan slapped him lustily on the back, as if to indicate that he was pleased with his contribution and effort.
Early in the third quarter, the Jets punted for the first time all game. Tebow trotted onto the field and assumed his position as what used to be called the “upback,” back in the days when announcers would hardly talk about the position. But since the Jets announced that Tebow would play the position shortly after they traded for him, it has been given the heroic-sounding name of “personal protector.”
The CBS cameras, no doubt following through on a mandate from a mid-week production meeting, trained a camera on Tebow while Marv Albert made mention of the Jets' new “personal protector.” But at that point, mercilessly, the Tebow narrative has been subsumed by the narrative surrounding his team, which is that they couldn’t have started the season any better.
It got a little dicey from there, though. The Bills scored a touchdown on that possession, and then parlayed a big return of another Jets punt, through no fault of Tebow’s, on their subsequent possession into another touchdown, to pull within 41-28 with six minutes left.
The Tebow-as-Winner theory holds that whatever little he might do early in the game, he’ll do something in the end to help win it.
This was stretching it: With the Bills needing an onside kick to stay alive, their bouncing attempt wound up in the arms of Tebow.
The cherry on top of an auspicious opener would have been a Tebow touchdown. After the Jets marched through a dispirited Bills defense to the 2-yard-line, on came Tebow. But it took him awhile to get on the field, and he seemed to lose track of time, and a delay-of-game penalty pushed the Jets back five yards and snatched the chance for an easy Tebow touchdown away.
Still, he took a snap in the shotgun and ran to his left in what looked like a variation of the old “student body” play, where all the linemen go in one direction. Like most of the other plays involving Tebow, it didn’t really work. But yesterday was a day when that didn't seem to matter.
The Jets wound up scoring anyway to cap off the 48-28 blowout. As the clock wound down to zero, the CBS cameras picked Sanchez on the sideline, progressing down the bench with hand-slaps to his offensive teammates. After one game, it was just as the braintrust insisted it would be: Tebow, who was on the field for 12 plays, was a supporting but potentially important player. And the Jets were Sanchez’s team.
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