Mike Tannenbaum, as general manager of the New York Jets, once consulted Wall Street management specialists to solve the dilemma every National Football League franchise faces: How do you consistently excel when you're not allowed to outspend other teams? The finance guys’ advice for Tannenbaum was to sign players with what are known as “character issues”: good athletes who are also bad apples. Part of the theory is that character issues lower the prices of talented players, allowing you to swoop in for a bargain and preserve salary-cap space. To be sure, these players are inexpensive for good reason: between not learning the playbook, proving locker room poison, or repeatedly getting arrested on drug and domestic abuse charges, these players may do more harm than good. However, since only one team out of 32 gets to raise the Lombardi Trophy each year, the calculated risk could be worth it.
When Tannenbaum made Tim Tebow a Jets back-up quarterback before last season, it was motivated by the same sort of idea, even though, of course, the one thing not wrong with the hard-working, literally virginal Tebow is his character. But Tebow is a clubhouse distraction nonetheless: The NFL’s biggest soap opera—ESPN once told its reporters, “You can’t talk enough about Tebow”—he is loved or hated in equal measure, it seems, not only for his godliness (which he has occasionally politicized) but also for his style of play (which politely could be called unconventional). He was born to play the college game—at the University of Florida, he led his team to a national championship and won a Heisman Trophy—but seems fundamentally ill-suited to NFL quarterbacking: His release takes too long; he does not make good decisions; he is inaccurate.
Yet somehow Tebow led the Denver Broncos to a miraculous 8-8 record and an even-more-miraculous first-round playoff victory two years ago. So even after last season, when Tebow was either injured or backing up the Jets’ bad starting quarterback Mark Sanchez, there is still an argument that he is a talented guy you want on your team; and due to the aforementioned baggage, you may be able to get him for a bargain.
Now the New England Patriots have scooped him up. The most compelling football figure to non-football fans is joining forces with the most compelling football figure to hardcore football fans—that would be Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
To say this is unexpected is an understatement. Tebow (along with the more conventionally average Ryan Mallett) will theoretically be backing up Tom Brady—one of the greatest quarterbacks in history—in quite possibly the most complex passing offense ever designed, which last season led the league in yards per game and points per game (34.8, six points more than second place). If you asked 100 NFL observers which franchise is the most ostentatiously buttoned-up, the one that least likes to be involved in the sort of soap-opera drama that the ESPN2 talkfests devour, perhaps 99 of them would say New England. Grantland’s Chuck Klosterman probably put matters most succinctly when he tweeted a couple hours ago, “Bill Belichick: Genius, troll, and magnificent bastard.”
Here are a few potential reasons why:
• At Florida, Tebow’s coach was Urban Meyer, who was instrumental to developing the spread offense, which came to dominate college and professional football. In fact, the most prolific offense in history utilized the spread offense—the 2007 Patriots, coached by Belichick and run by current Pats coordinator Josh McDaniels.1 Belichick and Meyer (now Ohio State’s coach) are known buddies and football conspirators, and nobody questions that Meyer used Tebow brilliantly (albeit in the very different college game). Belichick has drafted several of Meyer’s old players, including his star tight end Aaron Hernandez. So perhaps Meyer had some interesting thoughts for how his favorite ex-player can succeed in the NFL, and he decided to share them with his favorite NFL coach?
• Tebow undoubtedly has a unique collection of skills. (People with no interest in football geekery can skip the next two paragraphs.) Some are so-called “intangibles,” like leadership, but some are very real: The guy is built like a tank and seems to have an instinct for where to go with the ball. In college, Meyer put Tebow’s Swiss Army Knife–like array of abilities to good use in an option offense that saw him unpredictably mixing passes and pitches and runs. In the pro game, only quicker quarterbacks like Michael Vick and Robert Griffin III can successfully helm offenses that are designed to have the quarterback run a lot. But that doesn’t mean Belichick can’t find uses for Tebow as a fullback, taking handoffs and leading on blocks; a running back; or even a tight end.
In fact, Belichick actually already does a similar thing with Hernandez, who sometimes lines up in the backfield and takes hand-offs. Those plays work because between accounting for Hernandez as a threat to run and a threat to receive and also having to deal with the Patriots’ even better other tight end Rob Gronkowski, opposing defenses inevitably must consign themselves to a mismatch somewhere. With Gronkowski out indefinitely with a series of rather gruesome injuries, perhaps Hernandez will need to be more of a traditional tight end, and it will be Tebow who is forcing the mismatches.
• It is nice to get players from divisional rivals, because they may know the playbook and such. However, that makes the most sense in the middle of the season (which it’s not); when the rival in question has the same coach as when your new player played there (the Jets do not); and when the rival in question is any good (the Jets are not). So, maybe scrap this theory.
• It is true that the Pats are buttoned-up team, but the Patriots are a pretty high-drama organization, too. Like Tannenbaum, Belichick has proven himself happy to sign guys of questionable character on the theory that he can get them for cheap. The most prominent recent examples include duds like defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth and wide receiver Chad Johnson, but also successes like Corey Dillon; wide receiver Randy Moss proved to be both. Again, Tebow does not have character issues, but for these purposes he almost may as well have.
• Belichick is singularly unsentimental about what players cost: From star cornerback Ty Law nine years ago to wide receiver Wes Welker this past offseason, he has consistently refused to re-sign excellent players who might cost just a little bit more than he feels they are worth.2 While details about the Tebow signing have not leaked out yet, you can rest assured that the Pats got him for cheap: Tebow may have been on his way to the Canadian Football League, and surely took whatever he could get. If Belichick is paying him the league minimum, why not?
Even considering all of the above, I’m not convinced this is smart. But Belichick’s track record—two Super Bowl rings as defensive coordinator of the New York Giants; three more as the Pats’ head coach; three-and-a-half decades in the league—probably earns him some benefit of the doubt. Regardless, the NFL’s top soap opera just got decidedly more soapy and operatic.
Between then and now, McDaniels coached the Denver Broncos, where he drafted—oh yeah—Tim Tebow.
The exception that proves the rule is Brady, who as an all-time great at by far the most important position in an offense designed around him essentially cannot be paid enough.