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Brace Yourselves: Tim Tebow Is Coming Back to the NFL

Tim Tebow, quarterback of the University of Florida Gators, greets fans after a game in 2009. (Pierre DuCharme / Reuters)

After six years away, Tim Tebow is returning to the NFL, at least for a little while. After weeks of speculation, today the Jacksonville Jaguars officially signed the former star college quarterback, expecting to use him as a backup tight end. During his somewhat successful brief run with the Denver Broncos, and significantly less successful run with the New York Jets, Tebow attracted an extraordinarily impassioned fan base and similarly impassioned critics for his open displays of religious faith.

A lot of time has passed since then, and during that time, Tebow spent five years in baseball with the minor-league teams of the New York Mets. More than a few NFL commentators have scoffed at the idea that a 33-year-old quarterback who has never played an NFL game at tight end really represents the best option at that position for the Jaguars, who are coming off an abysmal 1–15 season.

Some commentators contend it’s a publicity stunt of sorts, reuniting Tebow with his old college coach, Urban Meyer. A team that just drafted Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence with the first overall pick in this year’s draft really shouldn’t need publicity stunts, but the Jaguars may be a little more eager to get butts in the seats than the average NFL franchise.  In 2019, the Jaguars had the NFL’s steepest decline in their attendance average, just under 60,000 on average in a stadium built to seat 67,000. That put them 27th in attendance in a 32-team league. On paper, the Jaguars had the second-highest attendance in the league last year . . . but every team operated under capacity restrictions because of the pandemic, and 13 teams had zero attendance.

In Tebow, the Jaguars are gaining a well-known player with his own diehard fan base and deep roots in their hometown; Tebow competed at Trinity Christian Academy in Jacksonville and Nease High School in Ponte Vedra. Florida Gators fans over in Gainesville will always love him for delivering a national championship and may well become more interested in following the Jaguars.

It is fair to wonder just what a 33-year-old former quarterback can do for the Jaguars at the tight-end position. Then again, the tight ends currently on the team are a bunch of no-names – Chris Manhertz (twelve career catches),  James O’Shaughnessy (88 career catches in six seasons), and today the team also signed Luke Farrell, their fifth-round draft choice in this year’s draft. Most teams carry three tight ends on their roster, and there’s usually another spot for one on the practice squad – developmental players who practice with the team but aren’t active for regular-season games. If signing Tebow is indeed a publicity stunt, one can fairly ask just how much the Jaguars are giving up by indulging in it. Are they cutting a marginally better player or relegating him to the practice squad, in order to enjoy the fan interest that Tebow brings? It’s not likely that Tebow would be bumping the next Travis Kelce out of a roster spot.

Then again, successful franchises don’t horse around with bringing in players just to generate headlines and fan curiosity. They just have the best 47 players suit up on game day and count on a competitive performance on the field to generate fan interest. And while small, there is an opportunity cost in enabling Tebow’s comeback bid. A less-famous rookie or undrafted free agent might be able to improve considerably in a year or two, while the 33-year-old Tebow probably doesn’t make much sense as part of the Jaguars’ long-term plans.

And it’s hard to see how Tebow can have more than a marginal short-term influence on the Jaguars’ attendance. In all likelihood, Tebow’s best-case scenario is that he’s the backup tight end for this year, and maybe next year. How many fans will buy a ticket or tune in, just to watch Tebow block or play special teams?

There’s one other angle that’s probably at work here. Head coaches like to bring in “their guys” – players whom they’ve coached before, who know the coach’s expectations, systems, game plans, and philosophies. Every time Bill Parcells coached a new team, a handful of players from his previous team followed him through free agency or trades. Urban Meyer thinks the world of Tebow, and he undoubtedly sees his old college quarterback as the ultimate good locker-room influence, the kind of player who leads the team emotionally and mentally, even if he isn’t the most gifted physically. And who knows, maybe it will work.

Either way, sports radio will have plenty to talk about for the rest of the year. And much like another NFL player whose on-field achievements were overshadowed by the political culture war surrounding him, a lot of people who don’t really follow the NFL will suddenly have strong and loud opinions about who the Jaguars backup tight ends should be.

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