Sports

Urban Meyer Can’t Stop Believing in Tim Tebow

Tim Tebow means different things to different people. To some, he’s a catalyst for media spectacles who has a tendency to show up when an organization could stand to sell some extra tickets and generate publicity. To others, he’s an avatar of faith, perseverance, and competitive spirit. Depending on your connection to some combination of the University of Florida, the Denver Broncos, overt religiosity, college football, sports media, the ability to hit a home run in minor league baseball, and the Jacksonville Jaguars, your feelings about Tebow might vary from indulged to delusional to inspired.

Right now, there’s one person whose vision of Tebow matters most: Urban Meyer. On Thursday, the Jaguars officially signed Tebow to their 90-man offseason roster, reuniting the first-year Jacksonville coach with his former Gators star. Tebow faces an uphill climb to make the team, given that he hasn’t participated in an NFL practice since he spent the 2015 preseason with the Eagles, and hasn’t played in a regular-season NFL game in nine years. Tebow’s best season was in Denver in 2011, when he was 24; he’s now 33. Oh, and he plays tight end, not quarterback.

For Tebow, the offseason tryout with Jacksonville is an opportunity to remain a professional athlete, clearly something he cares about, considering he spent the last five years as a minor leaguer for the New York Mets organization. Tebow joined the Mets in 2016 having not played baseball since his junior year of high school; by the time he retired from the professional game in February he’d made it to Triple-A. In Jacksonville, near his hometown of Ponte Vedra and full of Florida Gators fans, he’ll have a chance to make his NFL comeback in friendly territory.

Far more significant, though much less obvious, is what Tebow’s tryout means to Meyer. Tebow’s signing came with a degree of fanfare—much of it generated by the Jaguars—that proves the team sees him as more than just another training camp longshot. When Jacksonville agreed to terms with six undrafted free agents earlier this month, the press release announcing those transactions simply gave the players’ names, positions, colleges, heights, and weights. Tebow’s was accompanied by a lengthy press release including quotes and detailed biographical information.

“I want to thank the Jaguars for the opportunity to compete and earn the chance to be part of this team,” Tebow said in the release. “I know it will be a challenge, but it is a challenge I embrace. I am dedicated to taking the direction of our coaching staff and learning from my teammates. I appreciate everyone’s support as I embark on this new journey.”

The release went on to describe Tebow’s philanthropic work and his years in college football, the NFL, baseball, and broadcasting. It noted that “he and his wife, Demi-Leigh, were married in January 2020.”

If Meyer wants Tebow purely for his football abilities, it would be strange to treat his signing so differently than those of other players in a similar position on the team’s roster. Sure, Tebow’s a big name, but teams often try to set a tone in how they talk about player signings, one that sends a message to the rest of the locker room or to fans or media members. The message sent in the rollout of Tebow’s signing is that he isn’t just any other May addition. The likeliest outcome given Tebow’s age, time off, inexperience at tight end, and performance history—he’s never had consistent success as a professional athlete—is that he’ll be cut before Week 1, but the Jaguars are telegraphing to anyone paying attention that they believe he offers something others don’t. Tebow was signed over other veteran free-agent tight ends with more recent experience, like Trey Burton, Richard Rodgers, and Tyler Eifert, who caught 36 passes for the Jaguars last season, even though the top returning tight end on Jacksonville’s roster, James O’Shaughnessy, had just 262 receiving yards last season. Tebow knows Meyer, but so do other players already on the Jaguars roster, such as running back Carlos Hyde, left guard Andrew Norwell, defensive end Lerentee McCray, and tight end Luke Farrell, whom Meyer also coached in college. Several members of the Jacksonville coaching staff also worked with Meyer at Florida or Ohio State. Coaches often like having familiar faces around, but if Tebow were just a familiar face, he would hardly be the only one.

Talking to Cris Collinsworth on Collinsworth’s Pro Football Focus podcast this week, Meyer said that his assistant coaches were shocked by how quickly Tebow took instruction when they worked him out before signing him.

“They said, ‘Wow, this guy’s ball skills, he’s a great athlete, he looks like he’s 18 years old, not 20-whatever-he-is, 33.’ I said, ‘Guys, you don’t understand. Now this guy is, he’s the most competitive maniac you’re ever gonna talk to, and let’s give it a shot,’” Meyer said.

Not for nothing, competitive maniac is the type of phrase one could use to describe Meyer himself. It’s certainly the type of influence he seems to want in his locker room. Maybe this is Meyer’s way of signaling the type of competitor he wants on his team. There are obvious challenges in using Tebow as that example, given that he may not make the team, and that his presence could just as easily send the message that jobs are available to Meyer’s friends and associates. It could be meaningful to Jaguars players that Tebow wants to work with them when he could easily be somewhere else, probably drawing a bigger paycheck. It could be upsetting to some of them, if his work product is not as good as theirs. It might not matter to them much at all—NFL locker rooms tend to be siloed by position group, and players are mostly concerned with their own business. Even if they don’t see what Meyer sees in Tebow, what they think Meyer sees does matter—finding a teammate moderately corny is hardly destructive, but the perception of favoritism could be. Meyer may be misjudging how the rest of his players view Tebow, or he may not be. If Tebow is someone whose success has been intertwined with an impulse to reenter the competitive arena, he may be a bit of a mirror to Meyer.

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