Tim Tebow to the Patriots: What it means, and what it doesn't

Jared Wickerham

There are a lot of ways to see Tim Tebow's signing with the New England Patriots. But there are a few that seem like clear interpretations.

Tim Tebow signed a two-year deal with the New England Patriots on Tuesday. You may have heard about that. And you may have read some of the many, many, many things written about the move.

But, while I think the majority of those analyses have been smart and valuable, I think it's also important to note that there are a few things this signing clearly isn't, and a few more that it might be. Plus, hell, it's a slow week in our world.

Tim Tebow is not Tom Brady's successor

The Patriots have proven to be adept at many things, but they have never done something as ridiculous as taking a player with Tebow's underwhelming level of talent and making him a perennial starter. The myth of the Patriots early in the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady era was that Brady was a caretaker who quarterbacked a bad offense to perfection; Brady's career stats reveal that he completed more than 60 percent of his passes in every one of his NFL seasons after 2000 (when he was 1-for-3 as a rookie), had no seasons with more than a 3.0 percent interception rate, and had no seasons with a quarterback rating lower than the 83.9 he compiled in the one-game season he played in 2008, after Bernard Pollard wrecked his knee.

Brady was always very accurate and very good; surrounding him with talent like Wes Welker, Randy Moss, Rob Gronkowski, and Aaron Hernandez has only made him and the Patriots offense better. The Patriots didn't make Brady great; he was always sort of great.

Tebow is not going to usurp Brady, nor is he likely to usurp Ryan Mallett, who is rather firmly entrenched in the backup's role with the Pats. And he doesn't have to be, which is good for him.

This is low-risk for reasons unique to the Patriots

Only the most fanatical of Tebow supporters honestly believe that Tebow should start or be given a chance in New England, and those beliefs are clearly irrational. But while those beliefs were still irrational to a degree during Tebow's lost year in New York, the poor play of Mark Sanchez and low profile of Greg McElroy gave the calls for Tebow to start just enough legitimacy to be entertained. New England won't have that problem, even if Brady struggles (he won't) or gets hurt (unlikely), because it has a solid No. 1 and a solid No. 2, neither of which the Jets had.

The Patriots are one of the very few teams in the NFL with an ironclad starter and an obvious backup plan, which affords them the luxury of bringing in Tebow and the instant and insane quarterback controversy he brings. And both parts matter here: The 2012 Denver Broncos could have been in the same position, had they had a backup to Peyton Manning, but didn't want to risk the prospect of Manning struggling while Tebow hung around, giving Tebow loyalists in their fan base a chance to whine loudly. Lest we forget, while Manning was excellent with the Broncos, they started 2-3, and his worst game of the year came in Week 2 against the Falcons; there would have been a week or two of manufactured "Did the Broncos make a mistake?" if Denver had kept Tebow. Instead, Denver freed itself from that prospect, while the Jets invited it, and Sanchez struggling throughout 2012 made that a constant headache for Rex Ryan. The Patriots' smart team construction obviates having to deal with that prospect, and nulls many of the drawbacks of bringing Tebow aboard.

There's also this: The Patriots have proven that they will sign almost anyone and get rid of almost anyone, and at any time, and largely earned the benefit of the doubt from media and fans when doing so. Chad Johnson was an afterthought during his year in New England; Moss was disposed of when he proved to no longer be valuable; Corey Dillon and Fred Taylor and Junior Seau were brought in and discarded with virtually no fanfare. The Patriots don't do fanfare, and definitely do ruthlessness, and thus the default opinion on this move, for many, is "Well, the Patriots are smart, and they know what they're doing, so I guess this makes sense." That may or may not be accurate, but it definitely inures the Pats from the criticism a less-esteemed team (like, say, the Jacksonville Jaguars) would take with a Tebow signing.

No other team, furthermore, would get the ancillary benefit of people honestly believing an NFL team would pick up a player for the purposes of schadenfreude that many are willing to give the Patriots. NFL roster spots are precious, and the Patriots understand this as well as anyone, so I don't think there's any way this signing is more than very, very tangentially about sticking it to the Jets, but the Patriots get to play into the perception anyway. And even if they end up cutting Tebow in August, there will still be a segment of observers who respond with "Well, that just proves the Patriots are smarter than the Jets" or similar.

Finally, the Patriots are better-equipped than any other team to stop Tebowmania at the door of their castle. Tebowmania will endure, no matter how many brusque answers Belichick gives at press conferences, because of Tebow's immense popularity, but the Pats have being boring down to a science, and they won't be more than occasionally and minimally bothered by it.

At worst, the Patriots now have a dual-threat scout team quarterback

I hadn't even considered this prospect until talking with a friend last night, but the revolution of dual-threat quarterbacks in the NFL — two of whom, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick, gave the Patriots fits in losses in 2012 — means that preparing for dual-threat quarterbacks is more important than ever. And the best way to do that is to actually practice against a dual-threat quarterback, something that Tebow can certainly pantomime in practice.

So what if his throwing motion is still weird, or inaccurate? The Pats would still get to see what a mobile quarterback moving around does against defensive looks, and can glean insight from seeing how receivers get open whether the passes thud at their feet or not. Tebow is also a serviceable practictioner of the zone read, and an actual threat as a runner — something that Brady is unequivocally not, and something that Mallett more or less isn't — which gives the Pats another look in practice.

There are obvious flaws with this thinking: Tebow, as a lefty, is going to roll in the opposite direction from Wilson, Kaepernick, Robert Griffin III, Cam Newton, Ryan Tannehill, EJ Manuel, and so on — the only other mobile lefty I can think of is Alex Smith; Tebow doesn't have nearly the combination of arm strength or speed those guys possess, and thus makes for an inferior copy; signing a player to the active roster to use him as a practice squad player is stupid. But this is the worst-case scenario in which Tebow remains on the New England roster; those flaws don't make Tebow as QB chameleon implausible, just less valuable.

If Tebow fails, it will be on him

Twice now, Tim Tebow has been let go by an NFL team with some of his fans whining about how he didn't get a fair shake. In Denver, it was because he "deserved" a chance to continue to grow with a team he led to improbable success; in New York, it was because not playing Tebow as the Jets' season circled the drain became an injustice done to a player who seems to do nothing but work hard. These fans seem, to me, to protest the unfairness of aspects of a millionaire athlete's career a lot quicker than many of the millions of other unfair aspects of American life, but this much is true: There was something on the bone for them to cling to and gnaw on.

That won't be the case in New England. If and when the Patriots end up releasing him, it will be because that is what the Patriots do, and not because of a perceived injustice done to him; the Patriots treating practically every player as disposable means that Tebow is, of course, disposable. He knows that, the Patriots know that, and the media members who will be called on to explain that move know that. And, finally, the partisans who defend Tebow blindly won't have a soapbox to stand on.

This signing isn't for the benefit of Tim Tebow, like his last change of teams, a trade to New York that Tebow said he had input on, except in the sense that it really is Tebow's last, best chance to create a career as an NFL player for himself. Tebow better be ready to make every second of this opportunity benefit him, and ready to be a benefit in any way possible to New England: When the Patriots think it doesn't benefit them for Tim Tebow to be a Patriot anymore, he won't be.

And, for once, it will inarguably be because Tebow wasn't good enough, not because he deserved better. The Patriots are one of the smartest NFL franchises because they know one of the coldest truths about the NFL, and life: Deserve's got nothing to do with it.

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