FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — As quarterback Greg McElroy conducted an interview after the Jets' exhibition finale Thursday, Mark Sanchez plotted the prank.
Sanchez motioned to the teammate standing between them to pass an orange wedge. He crept behind McElroy and shoved the fruit down the back of his shirt. As McElroy squirmed, Sanchez fist-bumped his co-conspirator, Tim Tebow.
That snapshot of Sanchez and Tebow — pulling a practical joke, laughing, enjoying each other's company — should be remembered later in the season. It will be a predictor of their bonhomie in handling a delicate predicament, or proof that such camaraderie once existed.
The Jets acquired Tebow from Denver on March 21, placing him in a situation that, generally speaking, neither quarterback probably preferred. For Tebow, who two months earlier guided the Broncos to a division title and a first-round playoff win, the trade was a demotion. For Sanchez, who two weeks earlier agreed to a five-year contract, it was a threat to his primacy.
The Jets' intention for Tebow remains a secret. "There's going to be some version of something," offensive coordinator Tony Sparano said. But Sparano intends to eliminate guessing, and perhaps minimize anxiety, by communicating to Sanchez and Tebow their roles leading up to every game, starting with Sunday's opener against Buffalo.
How the quarterbacks handle those responsibilities, and the scrutiny that is certain to intensify, could decide the Jets' season.
Sanchez and Tebow have spent the past five months building a friendship — in meeting rooms, on the practice field, over meals. Guard Brandon Moore, like many players, said he wondered how the dynamic between the two alpha personalities would evolve. He thought they were getting along rather well, "probably more so than people thought."
"We have definitely gotten closer through this process," Tebow said, smiling.
Tebow said he set out to earn his teammates' respect by always working as hard as he could. Even when McElroy tried to play a joke on Tebow during a film session, cueing video of McElroy's Crimson Tide defeating Tebow's Gators for the 2009 SEC championship, Tebow proceeded to watch the rest of the game, giving a detailed critique of his and his teammates' performance.
"You can't lead anyone unless you know where you're going," Tebow said, "and you can't lead anyone unless you've earned their respect. If they don't respect you, they're not going to follow you."