By MIKE SIELSKI
CORTLAND, N.Y.—Before his senior season at the University of Florida, Chris Leak pulled aside the Gators' new backup quarterback, a freshman named Tim Tebow, for a private conversation at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
The topic of this talk had a direct bearing on the team's fortunes. Coach Urban Meyer liked to use a two-quarterback system—he had done so previously at Bowling Green and Utah—and his plan for the 2006 season was clear-cut. Leak would take most of the snaps, and Tebow would replace him in short-yardage situations and for a few unorthodox plays. Still, Leak wanted to make certain that he and Tebow understood and accepted their respective responsibilities in the offense.
He needn't have worried: Florida went 13-1, winning a national championship and providing a template for the Jets to follow six years later in their attempt to have Tebow share playing time with Mark Sanchez.
For all of the concern over whether the Jets' strategy will work, it is worth noting that Tebow has been here once before—and that the experiment in Gainesville, according to Leak, was a smashing success.
"You have to have unselfish men who are mature enough to handle that situation," he said. "We knew our roles and did our jobs."
Meyer and the Gators never wavered from their original approach: Leak took close to 90% of the offense's snaps, according to Dan Mullen, who was the Gators' offensive coordinator at the time, and he completed more than 63% of his passes for 2,942 yards and 23 touchdowns. Tebow attempted just 33 passes but rushed for 469 yards and eight touchdowns, averaging more than five yards a carry.
"Being in those big plays, I could realize what those moments were like," Tebow said. "When I came back my sophomore year, I felt like I was a lot more prepared and ready to go."
The task for the Jets in making a similar arrangement work, particularly amid the crush of public attention that Tebow now commands, seems far more daunting. More than 80 credentialed media members were on hand last week just to watch him move into his dorm room here on the SUNY Cortland campus, and Tebow is the first quarterback who has posed a plausible threat to Sanchez's starting job.
And then there is the tactical challenge of using Tebow. Even though the Jets hired Tony Sparano as their offensive coordinator in part because of his effective use of the "Wildcat" offense when he was the Miami Dolphins' head coach, not every team has seen the same benefits from that attack, which uses the quarterback as a runner.
In 2009, the Philadelphia Eagles signed Michael Vick for the purpose of implementing the Wildcat. But Vick was generally unproductive in the formation, and quarterback Donovan McNabb said the repeated substitutions disrupted the rhythm and timing of the team's offense. Through a spokesman, McNabb declined to comment for this story.
"You would hope that it would be pretty easy," said Mullen, now the coach at Mississippi State. "If it becomes an issue, you have much bigger problems than just rotating in because you have guys who put themselves ahead of the team."
Throughout training camp, Jets coach Rex Ryan has insisted that Sanchez is and will be the team's starting quarterback, but Thursday's practice offered the first bona fide insight into how the Jets will use Tebow, who provides a power-running dimension that Sanchez doesn't.
Before Tebow's first play during goal-line drills, Ryan shouted, "Tebow is live," reminding the defenders they were permitted to tackle the quarterback—usually a no-no. Tebow then faked a handoff and ran a bootleg around left end for an easy touchdown. The implication of the play was obvious: The closer the Jets get to either a first-down marker or the goal line, the more likely it is that Tebow will be under center.
After practice, Sanchez said he wouldn't mind ceding control of the Jets' offense to Tebow in such situations: "We really are in the business of winning, and we have to be selfless, myself included."
As a team leader, a quarterback always wants to finish off a potential scoring drive, Leak said, and in 2006, there were times he wished he weren't on the sideline in favor of Tebow. "But you have to understand the situation," said Leak, who now plays for the Orlando Predators in the Arena Football League, "and deal with it appropriately."