When the news was announced that Tim Tebow would be signing with the Philadelphia Eagles, we all prepared for the inevitable – a deluge of hysterical coverage from ESPN that would treat it with the importance of the Berlin Wall coming down.

The network has always had an unhealthy obsession with Tebow ever since his miraculous run with the Denver Broncos.  But as Tebow’s on-field relevance faded, ESPN only amped up the coverage even more.  Even as a backup in New York and a preseason camp body in New England, ESPN still gave Tebow more coverage than 99% of other professional athletes.  The way ESPN stuck with Tebow, with breathless and delusional coverage of a backup quarterback, is one of the biggest journalistic malfeasances in network history.

It’s always worth noting here the separation between Tebow and ESPN.  Tebow is trying to live out his dream and he’s always tried to be a positive influence.  It’s ESPN’s echo chamber and hype machine that turned him into some kind of walking, talking thinkpiece.  We got a chance to see the actual person once again on SEC Network (it’s no surprise ESPN immediately would hire Tebow given how crazy they are about him) the results were promising.

But now with the breaking news that Tebow is back in the league once again, would we see ESPN result to their animalistic instinct for Tebow 3.0?  Or would we see the network fulfill the words of President John Skipper and show one ounce of restraint.

The immediate result?  A mixed bag.

The 11 PM ET SportsCenter on Sunday night showed the proper sense of priorities we’ve all been hoping for from ESPN.  The show waited a full 13 minutes before reaching the Tebow signing.  It appeared after NBA and NHL Playoff highlights, Barry Melrose analysis in the Levy Lounge, and even two baseball highlights.  Even then, the segment wasn’t too lengthy with John Buccigross interviewing Adam Schefter.  It lasted 2:30 and the program returned to more highlights and news of the day.  A very sensible and responsible showing.

(By comparison, Fox Sports Live actually hit Tebow quicker than ESPN did, 11 minutes into the program.  The segment on Tebow featuring a taped hit from insider Mike Garafolo lasted 1:49.)

But the Monday morning SportsCenter is where TebowMania 3.0 slowly came to life.  The euphoria began when the early morning edition led with Tebow as their top news story ahead of all the playoff action from the night before.  The AM SportsCenter spent almost 5 minutes on Tebow at the Eagles at the top of the show.

By mid-morning, this was happening:

Forget the silly costumes for a moment and anchors wearing football helmets, that’s an entire rundown of stories dedicated to Tebow.  Just when I thought I was out… they pull me back in.  The sad thing is how close the real SportsCenter was to parodies from Sunday night of what they would do.

We’ve examined everything wrong with TebowMania at ESPN countless times over the years.  But what’s most interesting this time around is the divergent approaches to the story and how some aspects of Bristol appear to have their heads on straight while others are losing them once again.

And it really boils down to the morning SportsCenter versus the evening SportsCenter and how they represent two different realities at ESPN.  (And no, for the purposes of our own sanity, we’re on a First Take boycott this week and maybe permanently.)

On one hand, you have the late night SportsCenter representing what ESPN is trying to do right.  The top anchors, the top stories given the right amount of time, proper and respectable coverage that really could stand proud with SportsCenter’s long history of being the flagship show for sports news and highlights.

On the other hand, you have the kitschy morning SportsCenter which often houses the most offensive and facepalm-inducing moments from the last several years.  The live AM SportsCenter will feature any goofy stuff it can grab hold of as long as it has Tebow’s name attached to it.  (Or LeBron James or Johnny Manziel, etc.)  It’s like watching the sports version of the fourth hour of the Today Show, just without the wine.  And that mindset all goes back to Tebow and the AM SportsCenter having to compete with First Take and keep viewers.

We’re now seeing different editions of SportsCenter take on different personalities.  The 6 PM ET edition has become Lindsay Czarniak’s show with a rapid-fire pace of her interviewing the full roster of ESPN personalities and analysts looking at the day’s news.  The late night SportsCenter has taken on a relaxed vibe with sometimes (gasp!) anchors going without ties.  And some of those changes are welcome to give each timeslot its own identity, but that identity is also a part of the larger SportsCenter and ESPN brands.  And when sports fans see any episode of SportsCenter devoting itself to non-stop Tebow coverage with absurd gimmicks once again, it hurts everyone’s credibility.

What we have here is the very fundamental identity crisis at ESPN that Bill Simmons brought to light with his criticism of First Take in 2013.  Does ESPN care about ratings and gimmicks and TebowMania and being a live-action Bleacher Report slideshow?  Or do they actually care about trying to live up to the self-proclaimed mantra of being the worldwide leader in sports?  Do they want ratings by any means necessary, even if it means shoving a fourth string quarterback down America’s throat for the third time or staging fake sports debates to incite viewers?  Even it means sacrificing their journalistic responsibility and integrity?  Or do they want to be the gold standard for sports journalism and news?  It just simply can’t be both.  ESPN is going to have to choose.  Let’s hope they make the right choice this time.

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