Before college football's national championship game in January, Tim Tebow joined us on the "First Take" set in Dallas to discuss Ohio State vs. Oregon and the NFL playoffs. I thought about asking Tebow why he thought the NFL had rejected him for a second straight season, but that seemed like old news about an old wound. Tebow was an ESPN analyst now and we treated him like one.
Backstage after the show, I felt a tap on the shoulder and turned to see Tebow. I don't know him well - in fact, the few times I've been around him in groups, I've sensed a coolness and wondered if Tebow shared the view of my on-air debate partner Stephen A. Smith.
"You helped ruin Tebow's chances in the NFL," Stephen A. often has said on our show. "You supported him so hard [against an onslaught of on-air ctitics] you helped create a lot of the hype that did him in."
Stephen A. always adds, "That, and the fact he just can't throw."
But now, backstage in Dallas, Tebow surprised me by saying: "Why didn't you ask me about wanting to continue my playing career?"
The truth was I didn't want to further shame him or set him up to seem delusional. But I stammered back something about wishing I'd known and I would've asked.
I must admit I felt sorry for Tebow, who just couldn't come to grips with the end of his football life.
At that point, I had no idea Tebow had faithfully returned for 18 straight months (at least twice a month) to Los Angeles to work with throwing guru Tom House, who has refined the mechanics of Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Carson Palmer and many big-league pitchers. Nolan Ryan credited House (who pitched for eight big-league seasons) with helping extend his career when House was pitching coach for the Texas Rangers.
I've known House since those days in Texas. He told me Monday he has never seen anything like the commitment Tebow made to improving his passing "when he didn't even have a team or the prospect of being on a team. He just kept busting [his tail] and busting it and busting it."
That same week in Dallas, an NFL insider told me about a conversation he had with Eagles coach (and former Oregon coach) Chip Kelly, who insisted he didn't pick a quarterback for his system - but that he could play to the strengths of (and win with) any quarterback.
Typical Chip, I thought. He doesn't just think he's the smartest man in every room he's in, but in every stadium, no matter the opposing coach or staff. Kelly is the one NFL coach who refuses to think like an NFL coach and who doesn't appear to care what the rest think of him. If conventional NFL wisdom says, "That won't work," Kelly sniffs and says, "Watch this."
Kelly is the one NFL coach who still keeps one foot anchored in his college philosophies - and some believe he'll wind up back in college after failing in Philly.
But in January, Kelly had been given total control of Eagles' personnel moves. Little did I know how that was about to impact Tebow's NFL future.
At the NFL combine in February, Tebow's name came up in a conversation Kelly was having with super agent Jimmy Sexton, who represents Tebow. When Kelly heard Tebow, only 27, still wanted to play and continued to work fanatically on his throwing after two years out of the NFL, Kelly invited him to Philly for a tryout.
This, remember, was before Kelly dumbfounded the NFL in mid-March by trading Nick Foles (27 touchdown passes to only two interceptions in 2013) for an immobile Sam Bradford, the former No. 1 overall pick who has constantly battled injuries through his University of Oklahoma career and his five pro seasons (including tearing his left ACL in 2013 and re-tearing it last year). Bradford was beginning to be viewed as a top-pick bust. Chip Kelly was saying, "Watch this."
Or did he acquire Bradford as a bargaining chip to be used in trading up to take extremely mobile Oregon QB Marcus Mariota in the draft? Nope, said Kelly: "I'm the only Chip here."
Speaking of jokes, a week before the Bradford deal, many Eagles fans considered this trade inexplicably laughable: LeSean McCoy to Buffalo for former Oregon linebacker Kiko Alonso. Kelly had acquired so many Oregon players that the Eagles might as well be renamed the Philadelphia Ducks.
Kelly was a sitting duck for criticism, local and national. The head-shaking turned to belly-laughing on Monday, March 16, when Kelly brought Tebow to Philly for a workout. Kelly was impressed enough he wanted to sign Tebow immediately, but first wanted to maintain leverage in completing a trade for third-string QB Matt Barkley, hopefully to Miami. That deal eventually fell through, but "officially" signing Tebow was a delayed formality.
Tebow's last NFL stop just might be the jumpstart his career needs. Finally, he's playing for a coach who actually wants to utilize what he does best.
That could've been Josh McDaniels, who drafted Tebow 25th overall - then got fired midway through Tebow's rookie year in Denver.
That was never going to be Jets coach Rex Ryan, who misled Tebow into thinking he'd get a 50-50 shot at winning the starting job from Mark Sanchez. It quickly became clear to Tebow that the Jets were more interested in using him as an occasional gimmick to win only New York's back-page tabloid headlines from the Giants.
Speaking of Sanchez, a source close to the Tebow/Eagles talks says Eagles QB Sanchez asked Kelly to please not sign Tebow ... which probably reinforced Kelly's resolve. Surely Kelly questioned Sanchez's mental toughness after December losses to Seattle, Dallas and Washington knocked the Eagles out of the playoffs.
A brittle Bradford, a shaky Sanchez: Is it possible Kelly will give Tebow a legit shot at competing for the starting job? Several NFL sources have predicted to me he will.
After all, the last NFL coach to say no to Tebow was THE coach, Bill Belichick, who cut Tebow after a training camp and preseason in 2013. Wouldn't Chip Kelly like nothing more than to say "Watch this" to his buddy Belichick?
An NFL insider said: "This is the optimal place for Tebow. The system 'creates' the reads and it has run-centric options for the quarterback. He simply has to make basic plays with his arm and he could stick. And if he starts clicking in that offense, it could be Florida revisited."
In Kelly's two seasons in Philly, his offense led the NFL in read-option plays with 514. Next was Russell Wilson's Seattle with only 235. In 2011, often running the read option, Tebow took over a 1-4 Denver team and turned it into the NFL's top rushing attack. Tebow runs the option with gut instinct and rare will, and now he'll be playing the ride-and-decide game with the NFL's reigning rushing champ, new Eagle DeMarco Murray.
Surely Kelly looked at what Tebow accomplished in 2011 - in only his fourth through 13th pro starts, playing for a GM (John Elway) and coach (John Fox) who inherited him and did not want him - and thought, "The NFL rejected that?"
Tebow took that 1-4 team to a divisional title and home playoff win over Pittsburgh. His QBR in the final five minutes of regular season games led the NFL. He has always thrown a pretty good deep ball, always a Kelly staple. Hmmm.
All I said before the draft was: If you take him at the bottom of the first round and let him run the read option and throw off its run fakes, he will win games in the NFL. Did he ever.
Yet: After the Broncos signed Peyton Manning and traded Tebow to the Jets, he began to bounce from throwing instructor to instructor, trying too desperately to improve his accuracy. He began losing confidence with the Jets, and though House worked briefly with Tebow before he went to camp with the Patriots and raved Tebow was throwing "beautifully," Tebow crumbled under the pressure of sharing a camp field with Brady. He pressed. He choked. He regressed. He gave Belichick (and coordinator McDaniels) no choice but to cut him.
Now, no doubt, Kelly believes he can get Tebow to relax, fix him and play to his winner's strengths.
Now, no doubt, those who believe in Tebow and share his Christian faith are thinking, "The Lord does work in mysterious ways."
Now, no doubt, those who do not believe in Kelly are thinking, "Tebow will get him fired."
All I know for sure is, that day in Dallas when Tebow was on our show, I should've asked him about his playing career.