Hard to know exactly what to make of how Tim Tebow’s coaches and teammates celebrated his last-minute touchdown pass in Thursday night’s 28-20 exhibition win over the Giants.
Bill Belichick shared a smile with his quarterback. Josh McDaniels ruffled his hair. Tom Brady gave him a fist bump.
The naive fan in me says Belichick used the opportunity, with 13 seconds left in the fourth quarter, to give Tebow one last live repetition before he goes into football hibernation as the third-stringer. The cynic in me says Belichick was needling Giants coach Tom Coughlin, who brought the fourth quarter to a halt by calling three timeouts in the final minutes to get his team one last possession, only to cough it back to the Patriots.
And, well, the realist in me wonders if Belichick was giving Tebow one last chance to throw a touchdown pass before his NFL career winds down for good.
Roster cuts are due by 6 p.m. Saturday, after all, and while the belief here all along has been that Tebow was brought to New England to get one of the 53 magic roster spots and serve as the third quarterback, there’s a very real possibility that Thursday’s game was the last time we’ll see Tebow in an NFL uniform.
“You just wonder, are you witnessing him playing his last couple of minutes of football?” Patriots radio analyst Scott Zolak said during the broadcast.
No team wanted Tebow after the Jets cut him in March, after all, and the Patriots were able to sign him to a two-year deal worth the NFL minimum salaries. If they cut him Saturday, he won’t count even $1 against the salary cap. It will be as if his Patriots career didn’t exist.
And Tebow didn’t exactly light it up in the preseason, completing just 11 of 30 passes in three games, throwing two interceptions, taking seven sacks, and never getting off the bench in Detroit last week.
If Tebow doesn’t work out with Belichick and McDaniels, perhaps the last two people in the NFL who still believe in him, it’s likely that the former Heisman Trophy winner and first-round pick could be done with football, three-plus years into his NFL career.
The fact that the Patriots worked out two quarterbacks on Thursday — a couple of undrafted rookies who have bounced around a few training camps — makes you wonder if Tebow is still in the plans.
Never has a third-string quarterback generated so much debate, but that’s Tebowmania for you. Tebow didn’t look good this preseason, but Belichick and McDaniels knew exactly what they were getting — or at least should have — when they signed Tebow in June. He’s a raw passer who is a long-term project — at least a year of development in the Patriots’ system — but also a tremendous athlete who is a good scrambler and improviser. That 7-4 record and playoff win with Denver two years ago didn’t happen by accident.
And while his preseason passing numbers were terrible, he also rushed 16 times for 90 yards, and gives the Patriots an interesting weapon to utilize on special teams, or in case Brady ever goes down.
Of course, if Tebow stays, that means someone else’s roster bubble has to burst — a backup who could be used on special teams.
“Tebow isn’t fighting [Ryan] Mallett for a roster spot. He’s fighting [Michael] Buchanan, [Jake] Bequette, [James] Develin,” Zolak said.
And many Patriots fans would be upset if the team kept Tebow, who might end up being inactive on most game days, instead of someone who could be used on special teams.
But that’s more of an argument against No. 3 quarterbacks than against Tebow, per se. If the Patriots don’t think it’s useful to have Tebow or a No. 3 quarterback on the roster, then so be it.
But keeping Tebow seems more than reasonable if the Patriots aren’t sold on Mallett as the backup, which is possible given Mallett’s inconsistent play throughout the preseason.
If Brady goes down, Mallett might not inspire much hope. But a Mallett-Tebow combo, with the latter being used in the red zone and short-yardage situations, could keep the Patriots competitive.
Patriots fans didn’t get to see much out of Tebow this preseason, other than a bunch of wobbly throws. The guess here is that Belichick and McDaniels knew exactly what they were doing when they signed Tebow, and have a whole section of the playbook carved out for him if he ever has to play.
And he certainly had his best performance of the preseason on Thursday, playing the entire second half. In eight possessions he threw for two touchdowns (although the one at the end almost doesn’t count), had one bad interception on a deep pass, showed some nice touch on a few passes to Quentin Sims, and ran for his life for most of the half after his protection broke down. Tebow was sacked four times, but they were hardly his fault.
The boo birds came out after one bad possession, but Tebow shook it off.
“And then he comes back and throws a touchdown,” Mallett said. “It just shows what kind of player he is, his character.”
Tebow, to his credit, doesn’t seem worried about his future with the Patriots. His answer when asked how he is going to spend the next 24 hours: “Go to sleep when I get home, then wake up, work out, watch the film, see what I did good, see what I did bad, try to learn from it, get better.”
And what if he gets cut on Saturday?
“I’m just blessed to be in this position, and whatever happens I’m at peace with it,” he said.
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin