The best NFL teams perennially rise and fall with their quarterback and good or bad play at that one spot can make all the difference. Last year's Indianapolis Colts was a perfect example. Due to the injury of franchise player Peyton Manning, the team went straight to the top of the NFL Draft, but now with another excellent player (and one of the Draft's "surest things" in the last five years) former Stanford QB Andrew Luck has quickly brought the team back to relevance.
While some teams might need a strong and dynamic leader at the spot who can hang a slightly more crooked number than the team's porous defense might allow, other team's need a subtler touch. Teams with solid defenses need less from the quarterback spot, but one of the most important things they need is someone to steady the offense and not turn the ball over.
As backup QB Greg McElroy proved during Sanchez's benching last week, all the Jets offense needs do is put up a few points (especially against bad teams), not turn the ball over, and stay out of the way of their defense. Sanchez can't do that with all his turnovers, nor stay out of his own lineman's backside right now as we saw on Thanksgiving. The team "doesn't have a choice" based on what Sanchez is promised to be paid by the Jets next season, but if that's the case, then they don't have a choice but to continue to lose very winnable games with Mark Sanchez as their unchoice.
The Way Things Should Be
When Rex Ryan came to New York in 2009, he vowed to have a team that would play suffocating defense and run an offense able to grind opponents to dust through emphasizing the team's strength in their offensive line and running game. That formula worked well in 2009 as they effectively played around their quarterback until RB Shonn Greene was lost to injury in the AFC Championship game against the Colts. Since that time, the offense's talent ramped up and peaked in 2010 when the team went 11-5 and then decreased as we have seen last year and this year as the Jets have tried to duct tape another championship game run together, albeit unsuccessfully. The Jets had gotten away from their core of "ground and pound" football and this past off-season saw the Jets find a new offensive coordinator in Tony Sparano, an old school coach who was supposed to provide an offense that fell more in line with Rex's philosophy -- run the ball, control the clock, and focus on the quality of plays in the playbook rather than the quantity.
Unfortunately for the Jets, the offense has become less talented and productive and Mark Sanchez has been unable to bridge the gap of talent from where the team was in 2010. Rather than properly re-load the line and running game, the Jets went all in on their quarterback. The best quarterbacks in the NFL are capable of making the players around them better. This might be a cliche, but it's a true cliche. Watch Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady or Peyton Manning lead a receiver to an open spot of the field for a long gain on a rifling pass and hitting their receiver in stride off a double move by the target.
No matter what's due to the guy from a salary perspective, Mark Sanchez is -- as currently constituted -- incapable of this essential part of being a competent quarterback. Sanchez has become dramatically more hesitant in releasing the football, he pump fakes, pats the ball and is forced to re-load, sometimes multiple times a play on what should be simple pass and catches. Mark Sanchez is in his own head. He second guesses himself all too often while second guessing his receivers ability to get open even more. Sanchez will wait until his receivers are open to throw and that's too late in the NFL. This is made worse by his bad velocity, inability to throw a deep ball, or hit a receiver in stride due to severe accuracy problems. He tries to make plays when everyone knows he shouldn't, and won't throw the ball away when everyone knows he should.
There's been a big deal made that now that Mark Sanchez has been benched, he'll respond the right way. That might be the case, and that might work for a quarter, a half, a game, or the rest of the season, but sooner or later he's going to come up against a team that is not in the bottom ten in the league defensively and he's going to struggle all over again.
I get the logic that the benching might focus him, but my counter is that he should have been benched long before now. Sanchez confessed to the media on Wednesday that he had never been benched in his career before. While I get the reality of that at high school or even college level, it makes no sense to me at this level and given some of the games he's had over his career. As a rookie against the Bills in 2009 Sanchez threw five interceptions. That's just one game of many in which he panicked and played poorly. Against the Dolphins this year, Sanchez had three interceptions and was a huge reason the Jets lost.
There are a lot of problems for the Jets, and I do believe that General Manager Mike Tannenbaum is the main culprit for the team's problems, but holding him responsible right now is pointless. No matter the level of talent he's collected, Mark Sanchez is still losing football games for this team and not able to learn from his mistakes. Not only is he losing games, but he's doing it the same way he did as a rookie ... there's simply not been enough progress.
Tannenbaum might be to blame for this menagerie of jokers, but Sanchez has 23 turnovers on the season already and that number will continue to climb. Tannenbaum might be on the hook for a totally unnecessary contract extension last spring because the Jets dipped their toe in the Peyton Manning sweepstakes, but there's still four games to play and Mark Sanchez has more interceptions (13) than touchdowns (12), and still has an abysmally low completion percentage (55 percent in 2012) for an NFL quarterback. Sanchez is on pace to lose more fumbles this year than he ever has before, despite having better pass protection than he had a year ago.
To be sure, he's not the only problem on this team, but with so much invested and so little to show for it, we already know the answers. Mark Sanchez is the one thing that the Jets can realistically address right now as the team licks their wounds and regroups for next season. We know what Mark Sanchez is, we've known it all season, but we don't know know about the other options. Naming Sanchez over a player like McElroy makes it impossible to get the right perspective -- something I think Rex Ryan is simply not interested in learning about.
Starting Sanchez just forestalls the obvious; that this team is getting dragged down by the guy supposed to be the team's franchise player. If the coaches and front office can't see it, then they'll be dragged down too.