JACKSONVILLE BEACH, FLA. -- Even as Tim Tebow passively stood on the sidelines this week - yes, again - for his Florida alma mater's shocking Sugar Bowl shellacking by Louisville in New Orleans, the debate continued about whether the brawny scrambler could land with his third NFL team in four seasons.
A new year but the same vexing questions: Does Tebow's future have legs as a viable NFL starting quarterback? And, if so, who will take a chance on the unorthodox 25-year-old lefty if the New York Jets dump him, as expected, after the preseason hoopla devolved into a season of 141 passing-rushing yards and zero touchdowns for $5 million-plus compensation?
The buzz over the limited possibilities is most intense in Jacksonville.
After accounting for 29 passing-rushing touchdowns and rushing for nearly 1,000 yards in two seasons with the Denver Broncos, the former Florida Gator cult hero failed to produce a single score last season during restricted play. His career completion percentage is 47.9%; his passer rating, 75.3.
The Jaguars have attempted to groom three franchise quarterbacks - Byron Leftwich, David Garrard and Blaine Gabbert - since Mark Brunell's halcyon days ended more than a decade ago. Gabbert, injured in November, was replaced by Chad Henne, who started the final six games.
The Jaguars skidded to 2-14, tied with the Kansas Chiefs for the league's worst record. Jacksonville has posted one winning record the last seven seasons, with only one playoff victory since 2000.
This week, former Gators coach Urban Meyer said the NFL's sudden fascination with the spread option makes Tebow valuable despite his struggles to master the pro-style passing game. Tebow, a first-round draft choice in 2010, won two national championships with Florida and the Heisman Trophy.
Monday, the Jaguars fired general manager Gene Smith but retained first-year head coach Mike Mularkey. Smith, at owner Shahid Khan's urging, failed in an attempt to trade for Tebow after the Broncos signed Manning last spring.
"This is the town for him. This is a Gator town and everyone loves him," said Jay Faulkner, general manager of The Ritz Bar and Lounge. "Everyone would rather see him lose than anybody else. When Denver had him, our bar (patrons) wanted the Bronco games televised. Besides, the NFL is Ringling Brothers Circus - bring the elephants to town and let 'em dance on their hind legs.
"If Tebow is here, the stands are full. It's not about going to the Super Bowl."
Catherine Sorrell, a customer seated nearby, chimed in that the franchise needs Tebow "because Jacksonville has lost its oomph for its football team."
"He would revitalize the franchise," she said. "I grew up in Atlanta and we had awful (Falcons) teams for years. When I moved here, friends told me that Jacksonville was a lot like Atlanta was 20 years ago. And I am definitely living that."
No doubt, Tebow also would significantly add to the Jaguars' bottom line with additional jersey and concession sales. In 2011, when Tebow burst into Denver's starting lineup in October and the Broncos rode him to the playoffs, his jersey sales were second in the league only to Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Unfortunately, at an initial price of $100, the Jets' classic green-and-white jersey nosedived with No. 15 this season for Sports Mania, a beachside shop featuring pro sports apparel. Tebow T-shirts for women at $28 sold even worse.
"He has such a following - it's a love-hate thing - but we haven't sold a lick," said David Horton, who manages the store. "It's unfortunate he didn't get any PT. We sold some after we discounted them" to $50, and now $39.99.
"We can't get rid of them," Horton said, motioning to a rack-full of Tebow jerseys.
The Jaguars, under billionaire auto-parts scion Khan, 62, could benefit from a brand-building perspective with the signing of the famous quarterback. They ranked last in the league in franchise value last season at $770 million, vs. the NFL franchise average of $1.1 billion. As part of Khan's effort to develop an overseas identity, the Jaguars signed a four-year deal to play in London from 2013-16.
The Jaguars ranked 20th in tickets distributed with an average attendance of 64,984 - their highest since 2008. The unsightly tarps that have covered some upper-level seating sections at One EverBank Field were removed for three games.
"I think they should, and will, go after him," said Eric Hargrove of nearby Amelia Island, Fla. "They should start him immediately without any (training camp) competition. It's not as if he can't throw at all. As soon as they announce he is the starter, they will sell another 20,000 season tickets just like that."
Of course, with Tebow, assessments never are simple.
"He did some good things in college, but I don't think anyone believes it translates into being a (successful) NFL quarterback," said Chris Walker, sipping coffee outside a café. "But I do think he could be a phenomenal Dallas Clark (at tight end). I mean, Tim's an amazing football player. That doesn't mean he is a quarterback. Split Peyton Manning out wide (as a receiver) and see what he does."
Lance Drake, a server at Sneakers Sports Grille, said that Tebow wearing teal and black would be a worthwhile experiment.
"They're cleaning the slate. Why not give Tebow a try?" he said. "Coming to Jacksonville will either kick-start his NFL career or kill it."
Unlike when Tebow conjured up a stunning playoff victory against the Pittsburgh Steelers last January, including an 80-yard game-winning touchdown pass in overtime, he was no miracle-worker in New York. The Jets could not, or would not, find a suitable role.
Four months ago, Jets owner Woody Johnson said, "You can never have too much Tebow." But apparently the franchise gorged itself on preseason hype. The Jets, in free fall, search for a new general manager and deal with other issues.
This week, the league said Jets coach Rex Ryan violated policy by delaying his end-of-the-season news conference, now scheduled for next week. Instead, Ryan flew to the Bahamas. Meanwhile, offensive coordinator Tony Sparano, who was in charge of working Tebow into the Jets' wild cat package, still has a job - for now.
Wednesday, John Elway, the Broncos' vice president for football operations who traded Tebow to the Jets, offered another tepid endorsement of the polarizing player.
"Hopefully, he gets in a situation where (an NFL team) can take advantage of his unique ... talents,'' Elway told Sirius XM NFL Radio.
With Tebow, the Broncos were considered playoff upstarts. With Manning, they are considered serious Super Bowl contenders.
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