By Tim Casey
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- As Tim Tebow walked off the field on Friday, he spent several minutes in the corner of the end zone, interacting with and signing autographs for people from the Massachusetts Special Olympics. As guests of the Patriots, the group had watched the team's first practice from under a white tent, a welcome respite on a cold, rainy, windy morning.
As Tebow was about to leave, a woman asked for his signature on a red Special Olympics banner. He obliged.
"God bless, y'all," Tebow said.
Tebow then addressed the media for the first time since the arrest of Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez, his former teammate at the University of Florida. Hernandez has been in jail in nearby North Dartmouth, Mass., since late June, when prosecutors charged him with murdering Odin Lloyd.
"It was heartbreaking, and it was sad," Tebow said. "We've been advised, as I'm sure you've all heard a bunch of times, not to comment on an ongoing legal investigation. So I'm not going to comment further, but it's just heartbreaking and sad, and all my thoughts and prayers go out to all of the families that were involved."
Two days after Patriots coach Bill Belichick spoke about Hernandez, and one day after veteran players such as quarterback Tom Brady and nose tackle Vince Wilfork discussed the situation, management succeeded in making sure there were no juicy, Hernandez-related headlines on Friday. Linebacker Brandon Spikes, who played on the Gators' 2008 BCS national title team with Hernandez and Tebow, deflected all questions.
"I can't really comment on that, guys," Spikes said.
And so, the main conversation shifted to Tebow, arguably the most famous third-string quarterback of all time. Less than seven weeks after signing with the Patriots following his release from the Jets, the team's decision makers are already familiar with Tebow's appeal, at least in a merchandising sense.
The two replica Nike jerseys in front of the Patriots' team store on Friday were Brady's number 12 next to Tebow's number 5, each selling for $99.95. Another outlet geared towards women and children's clothing had Tebow's jersey (retail price: $94.95) as the only player uniform displayed in the window along the sidewalk.
On the field, Tebow remains in a low-profile role. On the depth chart, he is behind Brady and Ryan Mallett, a third-year quarterback out of Arkansas who is wearing number 15, Tebow's number in college and with the Broncos and Jets.
With thousands of fans sitting on metal bleachers and standing on the grass surrounding the fields on Friday, Tebow alternated with Brady and Mallett in 11-on-11 drills. He had a mixed performance. During one series, Tebow completed a long pass on the left sideline to rookie receiver Quentin Sims. Three snaps later, defensive back Nate Ebner picked off an errant Tebow throw up the middle.
It is, obviously, hard to make any long-term projections based on a no-pads practice in terrible weather conditions, during which quarterbacks aren't even allowed to get hit. Still, unless Brady is injured, it is safe to assume Tebow will not be playing quarterback anytime soon in a regular season or playoff game, outside of blowout scenarios.
With Hernandez in prison and Rob Gronkowski out for the foreseeable future after undergoing back surgery last month, some have speculated that Tebow may see some action at tight end, a position he's never played. For now, Tebow has spent all of his playing and meeting time with the quarterbacks. No one has brought up a position switch to Tebow.
"I just do what I'm told and work as hard as I possibly can to do the best job I can with whatever I'm asked to do," he said.
So far, Tebow is saying all of the right things in a setting far different from last summer, when ESPN devoted hours each day to all things Jets and Tebow-mania. Unlike in New York, where players are free to speak their minds and drama unfolds regularly, Belichick makes it known that he has no tolerance for talking out of line. Following his coach's directives suits Tebow well.
"It's nice to be advised on things and to, I feel like, have it structured," Tebow said. "I'm going to do what they ask me to do and feel like that goes with everybody on the team. We really are buying into what they're asking us to do."
Another hallmark of the Patriots? Revealing little information. Asked if Tebow would only play quarterback, Belichick was non-committal and said the Patriots would "use Tim wherever we feel like he's best for the team."
What has Belichick seen so far from Tebow in their limited interactions?
"He's got a great work ethic," Belichick said before practice. "Great."
That was it. No expanding on the topic. Belichick also didn't have anything new to say about Hernandez. To him, that's in the past. He made his feelings known on Wednesday. The Patriots are now intent on getting ready for the season. So is Tebow, who refused to speculate on whether he considers this his final chance to prove he can be an NFL starting quarterback.
"I'm focused on today, getting better today -- not anything that's going to happen down the road, but today," Tebow said. "I think as a football player, as a competitor, you have to have that attitude."
Does he feel pressure to prove himself?
"No," he said. "I'm focused on getting better every day."
With that, there were no more questions. Tebow headed to the weight room, to meetings and to eat lunch.
"God bless, guys," he said.