Tebow should play to his strengths — but will he get another chance?

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I have struggled to figure out how a Heisman winner and BCS title veteran could drop down to third-string NFL quarterback loser, barely hanging on to his professional dreams, in a matter of three years. To be honest, it was a shame to see it happen.

Somehow, the former Florida Gator who ranks second all-time in career passing efficiency among college quarterbacks managed to blow the big chance — dubbed the “Tebow Experiment” — that New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick gave him three months ago.

But an overall sub-40 percent completion rate and multiple sacks during three preseason games was not going to win him any favors, and Belichick decided to give Tebow the axe over Labor Day weekend. Granted, his time on the field with the Patriots would have been limited, even if he’d made the cut; he was playing to snag Ryan Mallett’s backup spot. Still, it was an opportunity for Tebow to play and learn alongside Tom Brady — arguably the NFL’s best quarterback — while proving his own professional mettle.

Doubts have surrounded Tebow’s NFL potential since he entered the 2010 draft. He answered some of those questions when the first-round pick boosted a struggling Denver Broncos squad to an unexpected playoff win in 2011. But the stars have not aligned for Tebow since his trade to the New York Jets before last season. The Jets played him sparingly on special teams and released him in April.

Everyone in NFL circles knew the Patriots had little need for another quarterback. The team has kept only two on the roster for four out of the last five years — Brady and a back up. Though Brady rarely needs more than a few minutes off the field in any one game, there is always a chance he would need to pull out and allow his number two to assume the reins.

That number two needs to be able to run plays, pass, rush, set the pace and lead the team while rattling the offense as little as possible. Nothing Tebow did during the preseason hinted that he could assure Belichick and the Pats of this level of productivity.

The big guy can rush for touchdowns, we know. Nevertheless, Tebow has to be able to throw the football with some certainty that it will end up in the right hands — and if he couldn’t connect consistently with one of the NFL’s top-three offensive lines, he remains a risk that few pro teams can take.

Is this it for Tebow as a quarterback? Most people think so. There is speculation that the Bills might pick him up as a free agent, given that starter EJ Manuel is injured and a shaky prospect for the first game of the season. Others wonder if Green Bay will put him on the roster just to have a veteran quarterback around.

On a personal note, I feel sympathy for Tebow. He’s a devout Christian with a big heart and little of the inherent self-centeredness that often comes with football stardom and nonstop media attention (I’m thinking Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, for a recent example). Tebow is also someone who had a taste of the top as a college player and has since only experienced a rapid and unfortunate decline.

His situation reminds me of North Carolina men’s basketball star Tyler Hansbrough, the 2008 NCAA National Player of the Year who led the team to a 2009 national title as a senior. He was the ideal college baller — he came in with high hopes and exceeded them, continuing to progress as an athlete each season while actually sticking around school for four years to finish his degree (who does that?). His retired #50 jersey deservedly hangs in the rafters of the Dean Dome.

No one doubted Hansbrough’s prowess at power forward while he was a Tar Heel. But NBA scouts voiced concerns right off the bat that Hansbrough’s collegiate success would not translate into a big-man pro career — and his so-so three years with the Indiana Pacers, where he averaged 20 minutes and less than 10 points a game, showed that he would have to fight to keep his NBA hopes alive.

Hansbrough is getting a fresh start this season with the Toronto Raptors, where he’ll likely be a backup in their front-court lineup. The good thing about Hansbrough is, he’s got a little flexibility as a basketball forward — he can play to his strengths. He’s no three-point shooter and his versatility is limited, but he knows he can score and defend down below and bull his way through to snag difficult rebounds. He knows how he can best contribute.

Tebow has adamantly declared many times that an NFL quarterback job is his dream. What he should have realized after last season is that the quarterback position might not the best area of contribution for him in the pro leagues. He’s got size and solid rushing ability — why couldn’t he take the summer to sharpen his skills on special teams or as a tight end and market himself as a free agent that way?

He didn’t display star appeal on the Jets’ offensive line last year, but I think his effort was a little halfhearted. He knew where he really wanted to be on the field. But if Tebow could resign himself to the fact that a different position might be his only professional lifeline, I think he could have a chance as a football player.

The NFL quarterback market doesn’t wait for stragglers. If Tebow stays true to his tweet last night — “I will remain in relentless pursuit of continuing my lifelong dream of being an NFL quarterback” — he might have one more shot, if that, with one of the less-than-stellar pro teams. If he can become practical about the future, figure out how he can contribute and show dedication to improving his craft in that specific area (though it’ll have to happen in a short period of time), I think he stands a serious second look.

Tebow has another few days to see if a team will take him this season — and if he is left unsigned, his career is literally in his hands. The sports world will have to see if he can make a better throw this time around.

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