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Why Did ESPN Send a Small Army to Jets Training Camp to Cover Tim Tebow?

CORTLAND – “Dammit!” ESPN football analyst Ron Jaworski said, tossing his hands over his head and leaning back in his chair.

“It makes us all look stupid,” said his on-air partner, Hannah Storm. Frustrated, she vented to whomever was in her earpiece: “You gotta help us here. It looks like we had our signals crossed. It was bad.”

Jaworski and Storm had been ready to talk about the Jets – who were 40 feet behind them on the football field – practicing in the red zone. Coming out of commercial, Storm set up Jaworski with a list of red zone topics to discuss. As Jaws looked at the cameras … the Jets had pushed the action back to the 30-yard-line. He had to shift on the fly, and the two chuckled nervously on-air.

The miscommunication was understandable. Jaworski and Storm were ESPN’s guinea pigs in Cortland, NY, a gloomy town 30 minutes south of Syracuse where the Jets decided to have training camp. For the first time, ESPN has sent a team – reporter Sal Paolantonio rounds out the trio – to flood the zone and obsess over football minutiae for five days.

(ESPN also sent a group to Denver to cover the Broncos and Peyton Manning, but weren’t given nearly as much access as the Jets provided.)

Even though ESPN’s on-site producer, Michael Fountain, tried to say through a smile that the network was in Cortland to track the compelling QB situation on the Jets, the Jaws/Storm/Paolantonio troika knows the deal – they’re there for one reason: Tim Tebow. Yes, ESPN sent an army to training camp for five days – Paolantonio has the unenviable task of staying for the duration of camp – to cover a backup QB.

“Tim Tebow is a cultural icon,” said Storm, who was resplendent in red on Wednesday. Storm, tanned and toned having just returned from a vacation with 14 girlfriends to Bimini Island, was a rockstar in her own right; on her way to the bathroom, she was repeatedly stopped by fans (off-duty cops, moms, little kids) wanting a photo. It may have had something to do with her short, form-fitting dress, a number that would have had Tony Kornheiser kvetching again. “[Tebow] is much more than a backup QB. He is of interest, not just to sports fans, but across the board.”

It seemed as if ESPN desperately tried to work Tebow into every Sportscenter hit, even when it made little sense. When they went live at 8 am, the first player shown? Tim Tebow stretching. At various times during the week, Jaws was dissecting how Tebow skipped a few passes, kept picking up his back foot too much, and held the ball too long in the pocket. (Pop quiz: Can you name five other backup QBs in the NFL?) At one point, Jaworski was talking about how the Jets might struggle picking up the blitz on 3rd down due to LaDainian Tomlinson’s retirement, which was a great point. Could Joe McKnight – who was sick and missed practice Wednesday after getting food poisoning from Applebee’s – get the job done? Sal Pal had a nauseating answer – maybe Tebow’s that guy.

This is how you fill oodles of TV time during the last week in July, when NBC has the Olympics, and you’re restricted from showing many highlights. Just how much time? Fountain said that in terms of live Sportscenter hits, the coverage from Storm/Jaws/Paolantonio was the equivalent of what ESPN might do from the World Series or the BCS National title game. All of that … for a backup QB.

[Aside: Even if ESPN wanted to continue this in-depth look at training camp next year, could you imagine those conversations taking place about other teams that missed the playoffs, like the Minnesota Vikings? Or the St. Louis Rams?]

Later, when I pressed them, Jaws, Storm and Palolantonio all predicted Tebow would never be the starter this season.

Jaws: “He won’t be the man, but he’ll be a contributor.”
Storm: “[Being a backup] will be a great example of his humility. From being the man [in Denver] to playing on special teams. He’ll be fine with that. He’ll do whatever it takes to help this team win.”
Paolantonio: “I don’t think Tebow will start at all this year. They’ll make the playoffs and win 11 games. They’ll challenge the Patriots in the division. It’s a lock.”

I responded “that ain’t happening,” to which Paolantonio said, “I’ve got the Broncos and Jets in the AFC title game.” His eyes were hidden behind Tom Cruise Risky Business shades, and it was unclear if he was kidding. Said the jolly Jaworski: “He’s just a shit-stirrer.”

*

The Jets seemed to understand the ESPN houseguests were just there for Tebow. Mark Sanchez, who you may have forgotten is the starting QB, told the media Thursday, “He brings a lot of fans and media. It’s like a cult following. You’d think the Grateful Dead are playing here or something.”

I asked Antonio Cromartie if he thought ESPN would be here if the Tebow trade hadn’t happened – he was against it back in March – and the cornerback responded “no” and laughed. “We don’t even care. We know what Tim brings. We just try to make sure [ESPN] isn’t a distraction to us.”

At one point, Paolantonio was doing a live Sportscenter spot on the sideline – Tebow was with the special teams, natch – when a ball came whizzing at his legs. A handful of fans 10-feet from him had been chanting “Tebow! Tebow!” Paolantonio, whose blindingly white teeth and sneakers, along with his bronzed skin make him look like the kind of guy who could leave practice and seamlessly go sing Sinatra in a bar at the beach, instantly engaged with the fans. “Somebody must have thrown that at me on purpose.”

Or, someone was throwing it at the fans chanting for Tebow.

Bart Scott, who is as quick-witted in person as you might imagine, sat down for an interview with Paolantonio. Some player with no shot of making the team was carrying heavy field equipment, and drifted into Tebow’s orbit, and then walked by Scott. The linebacker said, “youngster, you already know how to get in the camera shot – get near Tebow,” and a gaggle of on-lookers laughed.

Yes, ESPN is obsessing over Tebow, but as the network is quick to point out, so are the New York newspapers. The Daily News, Post and Newsday all have Tebow “beat writers” at training camp. If Tebow vomits in a trash can (he didn’t), or stays late to work on his passes (of course he did) that’s making the paper.

Remember the Tebow shirtless video in the rain from last week? SI’s Peter King referred to the coverage of it as “the most valid example of the decline of Western civilization in, oh, decades.”

I spoke to the cameraman, Brian Franney, who is actually a producer but said he’s started to dabble in camerawork to keep down costs. “I said to myself, ‘who is this guy with no shirt on? It’s pouring!’ Then I saw it was Tebow, and I knew it would be big. We had it on Sportscenter 10 minutes later.”

The most obscure media request for the video? The Weather Channel.

*

Here’s the thing about the Jets – there is no drama. Their problems aren’t sexy ones – they have no right tackle, their safeties might be the worst in the AFC, and they’re adjusting to a new offensive coordinator. They’ve gone from two trips to the AFC title game to a team that smells like 7-9 or 8-8. (I blame GM Mike Tannenbaum, but that’s a topic for another day.)

Even poorly manufactured nontroversies – an ESPN anchor asked, “is Rex on the hot seat?” to which Storm replied on set (but not on air), “we’ve got to be careful with these teases; I feel like I’ve read every Jets article this week and haven’t seen that anywhere” – fall flat this early in training camp.

So the storyline keeps coming back to Tebow.

“In a world where we have athletes and politicians who are inauthentic and insincere, Tebow comes off as a very real, likeable person who connects with people,” said Paolantonio. “It has very little to do with the football field.”

So one wonders – when training camps open next July, and there’s no Olympic distraction, will the network attempt to find notoriously secretive football teams willing to peel back the curtain for a few days? Denver limited ESPN’s live look-ins during practice and video from the above; the Jets, perhaps in an effort to steal some spotlight from their Super Bowl-winning rivals, were much more welcoming.

If the Jets plan on keeping the cultural icon on the bench all season except for situational moments – special teams, inside the 5-yard line, etc – would ESPN bother return next year?

[Top photo provided by David Scott.]

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