Jets made right moves with Sanchez

12/06/2012 10:59 AM ET
By Gary Myers

Benched against the Cardinals, Sanchez has his shot at redemption on Sunday in Jacksonville.(AP)
Rex Ryan did the right thing benching Mark Sanchez in the third quarter last week and he did the right thing giving him back his starting job for Sunday’s game in Jacksonville.

It’s the first time in Sanchez’ four years with the Jets that Ryan has been tough with him. Sanchez has been the Jets starting quarterback from the first game of his rookie season and although there’s been many games that he played poorly enough for Ryan to bench him, it never happened.

The Jets are 5-7 and need to beat the Jaguars, Titans, Chargers and Bills in the last four games to even have a chance at a wild-card spot, and even 9-7 may not be good enough to get in.

Even so, these are four crucial games coming up for Ryan and Sanchez.

Ryan signed an extension after his first season in 2009 and is under contract through the 2014 season. He makes around $3 million per year. Jets owner Woody Johnson is very comfortable with Ryan’s coaching ability and the attention he brings to the team, so I think Ryan will return in 2013 regardless of what happens the rest of the season. Even if the Jets win only one or two of their final games – all the teams they are playing have worse records than them – I think he is allowed one really bad season before his job is in jeopardy.

But if the Jets lose all four, which is very unlikely, or get blown out a couple of times, then Ryan will have some tough questions to answer from Johnson. If this season ends really ugly, then Ryan could be in trouble.

That’s one of the reasons why he did the right thing staying with Sanchez. If his job is on the line, then you can’t blame him for going with Sanchez over Greg McElroy.

McElroy did exactly what the Jets needed him to do when he came into the game against the Cardinals with the Jets trailing 3-0 with 4:48 left in the third quarter. He led them on a 10-play touchdown drive on his first series, throwing a short touchdown pass to Jeff Cumberland for the score.  The Jets would have had a second touchdown with McElroy, but Shonn Greene smartly went down at the Arizona 1 late in the game so the Jets could run out the clock with a 7-6 lead.

Ryan’s quarterback decision was easy. Was he going to trust Sanchez, his starter for the last four seasons who helped the Jets get to the AFC Championship Game in his first two? Or was he going to trust McElroy, who had not even dressed for a game until last week? McElroy was the No. 2 quarterback because of Tim Tebow’s broken ribs. He was 5-for-7 for 29 yards in relief of Sanchez. He didn’t turn the ball over. He’s a smart kid with a lot of poise, but if Ryan was going to put his faith in one quarterback, it had to be Sanchez.

Sanchez is now at a crucial point in his career. If Ryan benched him once – it happened Sunday after he had thrown three interceptions and looked lost on the field – then it can happen again. It can happen Sunday in Jacksonville. And if it does happen again Sunday, then this time Ryan would be justified if he starts McElroy the following week against the Titans if McElroy plays well again in relief against the Jaguars.

This is a wakeup call for Sanchez, but if the alarm clock doesn’t go off, then you have to wonder when it ever will. He’s had a poor season, but hasn’t been helped by the poor skill position players the Jets have put around him or by the presence of Tebow.

The Jets renegotiated Sanchez’ contract in March after they were unable to sign Peyton Manning and two weeks before they traded for Tebow. As part of the deal, which created extra cap space, Sanchez has $8.25 million guaranteed coming to him in 2013. That means the Jets won’t cut him no matter what happens these last four games. And if they elect to trade him, they would likely have to pay a good portion of his salary. In the Jets’ ideal world, Ryan put a good scare into Sanchez and he will start playing much better.

Ryan has put a premium on Sanchez taking better care of the football. But Sanchez says he’s not worried about making a mistake and being taken out of the game.

“I’m not really approaching it that way,” he said. “It’s my job to play the way I know how. These last couple of weeks, and certain stretches of the season, I haven’t. It kind of culminated there on Sunday and hopefully that’s the end of it. I think it is. That’s the way I’ll approach this next one…The point is to go in and win the game and not give the ball up.”

Does Sanchez feels like he’s playing for his future?

“I think we’re all playing for that,” he said. “It’s highlighted by the quarterback position, and there is a lot of emphasis and a lot of attention on this position here. This kind of thing affects people’s lives and careers. This is serious for coaches, players, coordinators, everybody included, so I understand that.”

It’s interesting that after having many opportunities earlier in the season to bench Sanchez when he was playing poorly, Ryan refused to do it. That would have meant putting in Tebow. The Jets have been reluctant to use Tebow for much more than one play at a time.

This is a wakeup call for Sanchez, but if the alarm clock doesn’t go off, then you have to wonder when it ever will.

But when Ryan finally decided to sit Sanchez down, it was on a day that Tebow was inactive with the rib injury. Would he have benched Sanchez if Tebow was the backup? And if Tebow had played as well as McElroy did, would Ryan have started Tebow in his hometown of Jacksonville on Sunday?

The pressure for Ryan to start Tebow would have been intense. He is the most popular player in the league. Those who wanted McElroy to start really just wanted anybody but Sanchez.

Ryan says he feels great about sticking with Sanchez. “With that being said, I understand he has to play better. He has to protect the ball better,” he said.

He also has to protect his job and Ryan’s.

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