An empty locker signaled the likely end of the Tim Tebow Era in Florham Park.
Photographers rushed to get prime position Monday morning, jockeying for just the right spot to capture the popular quarterback's final moments inside the Jets' facility. But that moment never came. And neither did Tebow.
Some may blame the media for fueling the mass hysteria since his March arrival. But the player wall erected back in training camp -- a directive from a Jets coach in order to shield reporters from their top-secret "Tebow package" -- only increased the intrigue. So, too, did Rex Ryan's insistence that Tebow would be "a major contributor to our football team."
However, it was painfully clear weeks ago that something was amiss in their grand plan. The Jets' epic offseason miscalculation is evident in Tebow's final stat line: 6 completions for 39 yards and 32 carries for 102 yards.
The perception is the move was driven solely by owner Woody Johnson, but a source with knowledge of the inner workings of the organization said there was unanimity among the top football decision-makers: Ryan, offensive coordinator Tony Sparano and former general manager Mike Tannenbaum, who ultimately pulled off the trade. But without explanations from Johnson or Ryan, we are left to wonder whether Tebow's union with the Jets was doomed to fail from the very start.
Never thought it through
"If you're going to make a move like they made, you would think there'd be a very specific game plan in place," said former NFL scout and current NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah. "And to me, it just seemed kind of 'fly by the seat of your pants' decision-making. That was what struck me as odd."
Shortly after the trade with Denver last March, Ryan said Tebow could get as many as 15 to 20 snaps a game as the Jets' Wildcat guy, providing a spark to an offense ranked 25th in 2011. "That's what they talked about,'' Jeremiah said, "but that's not really what they executed."
As the weeks went on, their use of Tebow became more infrequent and increasingly puzzling. Sure, the No. 2 quarterback had special-teams success, converting a handful of fake punts. But the competitive fire and physicality for which Ryan often praised Tebow rarely was unleashed on game day.
CBS "NFL Today" analyst Charley Casserly, a former NFL general manager, didn't initially agree with the Tebow trade because of the expected distractions. Casserly said he would have focused his efforts on Mark Sanchez by sticking with Drew Stanton, the traditional No. 2 quarterback the Jets signed but traded after acquiring Tebow.
Casserly, however, saw the benefit of using Tebow in a defined role, such as in goal-line and short-yardage packages -- something the Jets failed to do. The latest example came Sunday, when Tebow's only play was a first-and-goal handoff in a 28-9 loss to the Bills.
Few NFL experts believe Tebow has the tools to be an every-down quarterback in a traditional offense. But the former Bronco does have an impressive resume of wins, including one in last year's playoffs against the Steelers.
"This guy's a gamer," Casserly said, though he noted Tebow is limited as a passer. "When he gets in a game, people respond to him, he responds to it."
Nevertheless, Denver quickly cut ties with Tebow when Peyton Manning became available. And the Jets appear ready to do the same.
Former Ravens coach and current NFL Network and Fox analyst Brian Billick said: "You now have two staffs that have seen him on a daily basis that have ostensibly said: 'No, we don't think he has the skill set to play quarterback in the National Football League.' And the fact that the Jets didn't use him in the Wildcat more, still begs the question: 'Well, why did you bring him in?' "
Knew what they were getting
It's widely believed the Jets had buyer's remorse once they saw Tebow on the practice field. However, his practice struggles had been well documented and shouldn't have come as a surprise to Ryan and Sparano.
Said Jeremiah: "I would be more understanding of the situation if Tebow was on a roster and a new coach came into town and said: 'This is not my guy, and I don't think he's good enough, and we're not going to play him, no matter what.' But they signed up for it and they actually gave up some things to bring him there."
Tebow, who was traded, along with a seventh-round pick, to the Jets for a fourth- and a sixth-rounder, was passed over twice in the past two weeks for the starting job. After Sanchez's five turnovers against the Titans killed the Jets' playoff hopes, third-stringer Greg McElroy was tabbed to start Week 16 against San Diego. But when McElroy showed signs of a concussion just days before their season finale, Ryan returned to Sanchez.
Tebow was listed as the Jets' No. 2 all season, but as Billick noted: "Tell me who's going into the game next and I'll tell you who the backup is."
Ryan awkwardly danced around questions about his three quarterbacks and his refusal to use Tebow significantly.
Perhaps Ryan's reasoning is rooted in Tebow's inability to digest information quickly. Tebow, who is dyslexic, admitted in training camp that he needs extra time to learn plays and uses flash cards to help him better retain information.
"He's not dumb, but I think he's a slow processor of information," said Gil Brandt, a senior analyst for NFL.com who was the Cowboys' vice president of player personnel from 1960-88. "Being a slow processor of information, it affects him when he's passing. It affects him when he's running. He's found out that he can't run over guys like he did in college and those wobbly passes get knocked down or intercepted."
Brandt also pointed out that the offensive talent on the 2011 Broncos was grossly overshadowed by Tebowmania.
"Nobody realized that they had pretty good players around him," said Brandt, who noted the Jets' offense, which finished 30th, "wasn't good enough to make up for that like it was at Denver."
It seems the Jets are prepared to walk away from their failed Tebow experiment, leaving the door open for another team, very possibly the Jaguars, to try their luck with the NFL's most polarizing player. Billick believes Tebow will get another shot.
"But if you're going to play quarterback at this level, you've got to be able to beat people from the pocket," Billick said. "That's the one thing Tim Tebow has yet to show he can do on a consistent basis."
Nevertheless, Jeremiah was puzzled by Ryan's decision to start McElroy, given Tebow's ability to "run around and create plays."
"Some of the people I talked to around the league wonder, 'Are they more scared that he's going to come in and struggle, or be successful?' " Jeremiah said. "What would make them look worse?"
With Bob Glauber