It’s too early to tell how Tim Tebow’s third act in the NFL -- it's the New England Patriots this time -- is going to play out. But it’s not too early to say this: The biggest story in football will finally be about football.
In Denver, where he was drafted by the Broncos, Tebow was a religious metaphor, a pass-poor, faith-fueled quarterback who won religious followers and converted some skeptics as he led his team to the 2011 post-season. One year later in New York, he was a jobless superstar, the holy ghost in an asymmetric trinity featuring Jets starting quarterback Mark Sanchez and head coach Rex Ryan.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick presumably sees the same skills in Tebow that Ryan did; he's a versatile athlete who could do a lot on the field, given the right situation. But Ryan didn't use Tebow, even as Sanchez performed terribly, and the clamor grew for Tebow to replace him. Ryan understood that Tebow isn’t an NFL quarterback. But the media -- ESPN in particular -- would have crucified him if he had put Tebow on special teams or converted him into a wide receiver or tight end.
Belichick, by contrast, can do whatever he wants with Tebow. With starter Tom Brady and back-up Ryan Mallett ahead of Tebow, there will be no quarterback controversy -- even if a few die-hard Tebow defenders muster the reality-defying blockheadedness to insist he's really, truly a quarterback. More to the point, Belichick is beyond reproach (at least when it comes to x's and o's). He’s a media-certified genius, an economics major at Wesleyan who started analyzing game film when he was nine years old -- a football coach’s football coach. (David Halberstam even wrote a book about him!)
Belichick, of course, also has a successful history of using players in unexpected roles. That doesn’t mean he'll unlock Tebow's potential. But at least it suggests that we’ll finally learn whether or not Tebow can make it in the NFL.
(Jonathan Mahler is a sports columnist for Bloomberg View. Follow him in Twitter.)