Tales From the Vault: Tim Tebow’s New York Adventure

New York Jets, Steve Seidman

Tim Tebow’s in New York City and the Jets insist he’s going to personally resurrect the Wildcat. Tebow-mania? That’s so 2011. The Vault Keeper considers the infinite possibilities of Gotham going ga-ga over “Wildcat” mania.

I. Not-So-Tiny Tim

When you see it, you think, “this is one great ‘fish out of water’ story.” You’ve got a single-minded, uncomplicated hero with great physical skills who’s torn from the place where he played – and won — by his own rules. Then, he’s plunked down in big, bad New York City, a hostile environment that’s completely alien to the hero’s lifestyle. The natives are a cynical and skeptical lot who live by a different set of rules. They don’t think this guy can succeed in their concrete jungle, but wait until he shows them that he’s a force of nature……

Yessir, there’s no question that TARZAN’S NEW YORK ADVENTURE (1942) is one of the best entries in the popular MGM Tarzan series that starred Johnny Weismuller. As for Tim Tebow it would seem on the surface that he’s going to be as lost in New York City as The Ape Man was. The culture shock is going to hit Tebow like a Taser-blast.  He’s a Red State guy in the capital of Blue State America, a man of strong religious values among so many heathen New Yorkers. I mean, thanks to The Village People, the YMCA has a different connotation for New Yorkers than it does for Tebow.  And what about Jets fans? They’re known for worshiping false idols – after all, these are the same zealots that once hung “Richard Todd is God” banners all over Shea Stadium.

Tebow was introduced to the Gomorrah, er, New York City media on Monday. During his press conference, he came off as polite, humble, and likable. He demonstrated a much wider vocabulary than Tarzan, although he probably overused the word “excited.” Tebow fielded questions that flew at him fast, furious and full of soap opera-style scenarios.

The Jets maintain that Tebow will see a lot of action, but he’s also going to be their back-up quarterback. Mark Sanchez, who recently was given a contract extension despite a shaky 2011 campaign, is currently the Jets’ number-one guy. But Tebow and Sanchez share some similarities. They were both among the five lowest-rated NFL quarterbacks in terms of QBR. Now, I’m not too good with these new-fangled statistical categories – WAR in baseball is the one that really baffles me – but I do know that if you rank among the lowest in something, typically, it can’t be good. Tebow and Sanchez were also among the NFL’s least efficient quarterbacks in sustaining drives.

II. Wildcat On a Hot Tin Roof

Ronnie Brown takes a direct snap (AP)

In 2011, Tebow led the Broncos to an unexpected playoff berth, and in the post-season, he engineered a stunning upset of the Steelers. Although he has a big arm, he’s not very accurate, and runs with a football better than he throws a football. How is Tebow’s unorthodox style going to fit into the Jets system? The answer is so obvious and so simple, how could anyone have doubted the Jets for doing the deal? It all comes down to one word: “Wildcat.”  The second the trade was announced, the sports media-cracy weighed in: “Tim Tebow Gives Jets Strong Potential With Wildcat” blared one headline. Another proclaimed, “Tebow as Wildcats Changeup? Makes Too Much Sense To Ignore.”

The term “Wildcat” basically encompasses any and all plays that employ a direct snap to a non-quarterback. The Jets new offensive coordinator, Tony Sparano, was hailed as a “Mad Genius” for rocking the NFL’s world back in 2008, when as head coach of the Dolphins, he unveiled the Wildcat in week 3 against the heavily favored Patriots, Sparano positioned running back Ronnie Brown at quarterback and quarterback Chad Pennington at receiver. The formation completely befuddled Bill Belichick and the Patriots suffered a 38-13 Wildcat whoopin.’ The 2008 Dolphins continued to ride the Wildcat all the way to an AFC East Division Championship, a season after they had been 1-15. Other teams quickly pounced on the Wildcat and found a measure of success. But, alas, all good things must come to an end. Defenses eventually figured out how to stop the Wildcat.

2009 marked the headiest days for the formation. There were 337 Wildcat plays run in the NFL for an average of nearly 5 yards per play. In 2010, as defenses were catching up, the number of Wildcat plays dropped by nearly 50% from the year before. During the 2011 season, when defenses had the thing pretty well neutralized, there were approximately 60 Wildcat plays for an average of less than 4 yards per play.  20 teams used the Wildcat in 2010. Only 12 teams used the formation last season. Of the 12 teams that made the playoffs in 2011, none employed the Wildcat, including the Tebow-led Broncos.

The Jets used the Wildcat in 2011 and were one of the teams that didn’t make the playoffs.  Just saying.  But apparently, they’re still true believers. “If our offense is sputtering” said Jets GM Mike Tannenbaum during a recent radio interview, “we have three straight three-and-outs, and we roll the Wildcat out there, who knows?” Well, if Tebow is lined up behind center and Sanchez is lined up at wide receiver, everybody is going to know. In any case, the steady league-wide decline of the formation’s effectiveness bodes ill for its future. One might venture to say that the Wildcat is over. Maybe not JOHN CARTER or Herman Cain over. But certainly flip-phones over.

The Jets play their home games in New Jersey, where Tony Soprano is a legendary figure. If Tony Sparano wants to attain the same status, he might want to find more creative things for Tim Tebow to do than run the predictable and outmoded Wildcat. There’s already been plenty of conversation on the topic, including some suggestions of ways Tebow could help the Jets that do NOT include the Wildcat.

Certainly, it wouldn’t be unprecedented for the Jets to utilize Sanchez and Tebow in some kind of dual-quarterback alignment. In 1964, the Rams unveiled their “Outpost” formation (aka “The Open Stack”), which put quarterback Bill Munson behind center in an empty backfield while quarterback Terry Baker was lined up with two other backs near the sidelines. Baker was Tebow minus the arm strength. At Oregon State, the southpaw quarterback won the Heisman Trophy in 1962. The Rams made him their first round draft choice but almost immediately discovered that his passes had all the zip of a knuckleball. The “Outpost” was an unsuccessful attempt to maximize the value of Baker, who lasted just 3 seasons in the NFL.

III. Don’t Ever Try to Tame A Wildcat

It’s understandable that the Jets remain wedded to the Wildcat. The Wildcat (the beast, not the formation) is a familiar figure in popular culture. When it comes to college sports, there are 25 universities that call themselves Wildcats, including Northwestern, Arizona, Kentucky, Villanova and Kansas State. Why are their more Wildcats than there Bobcats, Tomcats, and Meerkats? Again, it’s all about the popular imagination.

For the literary-minded, there was a series of pulp Westerns featuring Wildcat O’Shea, written by Jack M. Bickham, who used the pseudonym of “Jeff Clinton.” From 1961 to 1972, novels such as Bounty On Wildcat and Watch Out For Wildcat, featured a two-fisted hunk of a hero who charmed the frontier belles and battled assorted low-down dirty varmints of the two-legged variety. While he was mahty quick with his shootin’ iron, his weapon of choice was dynamite.

Comic books? Image Comics introduced WildC.A.T.’s: Covert Action Teams in 1992. The team included superheroes with handles like Voodoo, Zealot, and Spartan. They battled an evil race of villains, one of whom actually took control of Vice President Dan Quayle. Thus you had a bad guy whose Achilles Heel was an inability to spell. 50 years before WildC.A.T.’s appeared, DC introduced Wildcat, a superhero (secret identity: boxer Ted Grant) who became an advisor to Batman and Wonder Woman. By the 1960’s, Wildcat was a regular member of the Justice Society of America, which shouldn’t be confused with the Justice League of America. What’s the difference?

Beats me, but I’m guessing the Justice Society was more genteel. I mean, what sounds more fearsome to you – the National Football League or the National Football Society?

If you’re wondering about Wildcats on the stage and screen, consider these classics:

  1. WILDCAT (1960)…Beloved TV comedienne and national treasure Lucille Ball made her one and only Broadway appearance in this musical about a saucy redhead (is there any other kind?) who strikes oil then strikes it rich. The critics seemed to have liked the show. Ditto for audiences. But when Lucy took ill, the sauciness came to a stop, and so did the show, which closed after 172 performances.
  2. WILDCATS (1986)…Sports movie auteur Michael Ritchie directed Goldie Hawn in a comedy that was actually about football. Kooky and lovable Goldie plays a football-obsessed high school gym teacher who becomes the head coach of an inner city football team comprised of the usual misfits and outcasts. If you haven’t seen this film, you won’t be going out a limb if you guess Goldie transforms them from underdogs to champions – in a kooky and lovable way, of course.
  3. WAR OF THE WILDCATS (1943)….John Wayne is at his John Wayne-iest in this rugged saga of oil drilling in Oklahoma. Lots of low-budget brawlin’, romancin’, and manly adventure in one of The Duke’s lesser films.
  4. PRAY FOR THE WILDCATS (1974)….Any cast that includes Andy Griffith, William Shatner, Marjoe Gortner and Angie Dickinson screams “movie made for TV,” which is exactly what this was. It apparently had something to do with the Baja desert, motorbikes and a far-from-Mayberry Griffith as a psychopathic killer. I can’t say I’ve ever seen it, but then neither can you.

Gene Vincent got into one of his best rockabilly grooves with “Wildcat” (“you wanted a lamb, but instead you got a wildcat”). This was a UK hit for Vincent in 1960, and the Beatles covered it during their Cavern days. Among The Ventures’ many guitar-driven greats is “Wildcat” from their “Wild Things” album. “Wildcat Tamer” worked as a blues number for soul man Tarheel Slim in 1959, then was covered 40 years later by country and western singer Dale Hawkins.

IV. Wildcat Scratch Fever

There are some who feel the Jets’s acquisition of Tim Tebow is purely a marketing ploy, a way to sell tickets and maybe steal some of the thunder from the Giants.  Already, Tebow’s aura has made The Great White Way even whiter. Madonna has offered to show him around and Tebow should take her up on that offer. After all, she’s performed in a Super Bowl. Tebow hasn’t. Tebow and Jockey have- tastefully – teamed up for a Big Apple billboard and surely, Manhattan’s Mad Men have many money-making opportunities to offer the Jets newest addition. But c’mon cynics, he’s in New York to run the Wildcat!

And once the Wildcat is thriving again, we can look forward to any or all of the following new sensations:

  • Wild-Katz Deli….Their knishes are delicious but try the #15, the “Tim Tebow” – white bread, mayo, and All-American cheese.
  • Wild-Cuts…..Mid-town men’s hairstyling emporium. Try the “Tim Tebow” cut for that “just took off his helmet” look.
  • Wired-Cats….Avenue B coffee shop where hipsters looking for a good cup of java and a place to plug in their laptops hang out. Try the “Tim Tebow” – Decaf All-Americano with a shot of vanilla.

Not surprisingly, Tarzan’s New York adventure ended with his return to Africa, but there’s no way of predicting every possible outcome once Tebow takes Manhattan.  It’s not inconceivable that edgy funnyman Bobcat Goldthwaite will return from obscurity – only to be known as Wildcat Goldthwaite, or that a contrarian sitcom writer will see an opening to resurrect Thundercats, via the t-shirt art proffered on “The Big Bang Theory.”  In football and in life, anything can happen now that the wildcat is back out of the bag.

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