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New York sure to test Tebow, on and off the field

Published March 22, 2012 9:56 am

Microscope • Will Tebowmania survive increased scrutiny in Big Apple?
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Chaotic, arrogant, sometimes even crass.

And if you think the New York Jets are bad, you should see their fans.

Welcome to The Big Apple, Tim Tebow. If you can make it there...well, let's just say the attention you received in Denver - the obsessing over your throwing technique, what kind of teammate you were, your religious beliefs, your musical preferences, where you went for dinner and, yes, even your Tebowing ­— will seem like a quick once-over compared to the microscope you'll be under in Manhattan.

"I think it's a great market; it's a great city," Tebow said late Wednesday night.

Better watch what you wish for.

While their buttoned-down co-tenants at the Meadowlands, the Giants, just won their second Super Bowl in five years, the Jets are NFL champions in dysfunction. Head coach Rex Ryan has turned off pretty much anyone not in green and white with his foul mouth and obscene gestures, and it's going to take more than a few bottles of Lysol to clear the toxic air in the Jets locker room.

They couldn't even pull off the trade without drama.

After announcing they had acquired Tebow from the Denver Broncos on Wednesday morning, the Jets needed the entire day to actually get the deal done, tripped up by the fine print. In the meantime, instead of the lovefest that usually greets new players, Tebow was dismissed as a "publicity stunt" by none other than Joe Namath and dissed by Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie.

"I can't imagine a more unlikely fit for Tim Tebow than the New York Jets, just given what we know about the culture of that team. It seems to me, and a lot of outside observers, a team that has a pretty broken culture — at least a messy culture," said Patton Dodd, the executive editor of Patheos.com, a website designed for dialogue on religion and spirituality, and author of the ebook, "The Tebow Mystique."

"[But] in some ways, it's sort of ideal for him," Dodd added. "Even though it doesn't seem like a likely fit, if he's serious about what he believes, this is the kind of place that he ought to, to use Christian language, feel called to."

On paper, Tebow has all the makings of a 21st Century All-American. He's personable, he's polite, he's generous, he even listens to Christian rock and sings the lyrics during warmups. He has shown he can win football games, too, taking a 1-4 Broncos team to the playoffs and thrilling fans with a series of otherworldly comebacks.

What he's not so great at is throwing the football. His 46.5 completion percentage ranked him 33rd in the 32-team NFL last year, and the Broncos backed into the playoffs with three straight losses.

Without coming out and saying it, none other than John Elway — the Hall of Famer who now runs the Broncos — decided he'd had enough. He signed Peyton Manning — a justifiable move no matter who you unseat.

"Tim Tebow's a great kid. If I want someone to marry my daughter, it's him," Elway said.

Though he called Tebow a "great football player," Elway refused to say much about whether he could be a great quarterback and then promptly shipped him out of town.

Now, Tebow walks into a city where fans won't have any qualms about sharing their feelings — these are fans who make a near-annual ritual of booing their top draft pick when his name is announced — and onto a team that already has a shaky situation with its quarterback, Mark Sanchez.

Sanchez's psyche was already fragile after the debacle that was last season and seeing the Jets pine for Manning couldn't have helped. Then, not two weeks after he's signed to a three-year extension, the Jets go out and get Tebow.

"Mark Sanchez is, has been and will be our starting quarterback," Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum said late Wednesday.

Uh-huh. The Broncos said similar things about Kyle Orton, and he finished last season in Kansas City.

The New York fan base is notoriously fickle - Linsanity? That's so two weeks ago — and one interception by Sanchez, heck, one glare from Santonio Holmes, and Jets fans will be calling for Tebow. The tabloids won't even be that restrained; one paper Thursday featured the Statue of Liberty, Tebowing.

"We obviously know that Tim has a magnetic following," Tannenbaum said. "We understand the popularity of the backup quarterback, and this one is more unique than others."

"Unique," that's a good way of putting it.

Tebow has had a large and fervent following since his days at Florida, and as much as the two national titles he brought to the program, he drew people in because of his Christian faith. He is hardly the first player to name-drop God or kneel in prayer amid the chaos of a game; Jeremy Lin, New York's most recent fad, makes no secret of his Christian faith, either.

But Tebow is seen as more outspoken, more passionate. As appealing as that is to some, it's a turnoff for others, and there is very little middle ground to be found.

"I'm sure that there will be plenty of scoffing at Tim Tebow and his kind of earnest, evangelical spirituality," Dodd said.

That may have been part of the reason the Jets wanted him, however.

Now that the Oakland Raiders are on good behavior, the Jets have assumed the title of the NFL's bad boys: brash, mouthy, itching to stir up trouble. Oh, it's entertaining at first; at times, "Hard Knocks" felt like a football version of "Dance Moms."

But the act can wear thin fast — especially when a team and its coach aren't winning.

Tebow "models this life of serving other people, of selflessness, these character traits that, at end of day, are conducive to winning," Dodd said. "Even though his status as an NFL quarterback is open to question and we don't know what we're getting from him as a quarterback, you definitely know what you're getting from him as a person and that's a person of character. Strong leadership ability, the capacity to rally people around him.

"Maybe they're hoping that will rub off on people."

Despite its reputation, New York is not the godless Gomorrah that outsiders envision. The city has experienced an evangelical revival of sorts, with young, goateed pastors establishing churches in storefronts, auditoriums and hotel ballrooms. According to nycreligion.info, about 40 percent of the 200 evangelical congregations in Manhattan below 125th Street started in the last decade. The Empire State Building is home to an evangelical school, The King's College, where students are preparing to become Christian leaders.

"The city has changed. The city is much more religious," said Tony Carnes, editor of nycreligion.info. "As far as the number of religious groups, we're at a 100-year high. There hasn't been this type of effervescence in this city for a number of years."

That portion of the population is sure to embrace Tebow.

Others, however, won't be nearly so welcoming, watching closely to see if Tebow really is as clean-cut as he appears.

Maybe even rooting for him to fail.

"What I think [being in New York] will show is the steadiness of his faith, and that's what many have tried to question," said Joe Price, a professor in the religious studies department at Whittier College. "If he succeeds in New York, it's not just because he's north of Colorado Springs and within arm's reach of Focus on the Family. He's right there within arm's reach of Manhattan, a very different culture. But if his faith is expressed in the same way, winning and losing, that really identifies the authenticity and the depth of his faith."

For his part, Tebow doesn't plan to act as the Jets' morals police. Or New York's, for that matter.

Asked about Ryan's salty language, Tebow brushed it off, saying, "You're not going to have the cleanest language in an NFL locker room, so I'm not too worried about that."

His job, he said, is to play football, "get better as a quarterback and to help the team any way possible."

And if he manages to get the Jets back to the Super Bowl, he could find himself up in the pantheon of New York's sports heroes: Frazier. Namath. Jeter.

Tebow?

"Jets fans will be critical of whoever doesn't lead them to the glory of the Namath era, religion or no religion," Price said. "For Jets fans, the only religion that matters is the success of the Jets."