A Fitting End to a Disastrous Season as Jets Eliminate Themselves From Playoff Contention
By: Kim O'Hara | Posted: December 18, 2012
How broken is Mark Sanchez? He's spent the entire season in front of a fanbase that wishes he'd disappear. He's heard more boo's and Tebow chants than cheers. He's been dogged by an unforgiving media that meticulously planned his ouster since March of this year. One of his team's six wins came from the hands of a sixth round draft pick. His psyche became so fragile that, after he re-earned the starting role from third string quarterback Greg McElroy against the Jaguars, head coach Rex Ryan felt compelled to inactivate McElroy in Jacksonville. That way Sanchez could feel confident that his role wouldn't be usurped again, allowing him to focus on his football performance.
Various personalities respond differently to any number of situations. Many questioned how the acquisition of Tim Tebow this offseason, along with his passionate following and accompanying media melee, might affect Sanchez. There are undoubtedly quarterbacks in the NFL who would respond to Tebow's presence with a vengeance, posting one new statistical high after another while validating his role as starter. And in New York's first game of the season, it appeared as though Sanchez would adopt such an attitude, completing 70% of his passes for three touchdowns and a decisive victory over AFC East foe Buffalo. The wheels came off the subsequent four weeks, as Sanchez turned over the ball six times in the course of four games. Since a Week 6 matchup against Indianapolis in which Sanchez tossed two touchdowns and committed no turnovers, the fourth year starter has coughed up the ball at least once each game, including eleven interceptions and six lost fumbles.
In spite of all Sanchez's well-documented struggles, including three early interceptions against the Arizona Cardinals that paved the way to McElroy's first NFL action, the Jets were still a factor in the AFC playoff hunt. All New York needed was a victory against 4-9 Tennessee to remain in contention. His favorite 2009 and 2010 target Braylon Edwards had returned to the Jets and he was facing a Titans squad that had recorded just ten interceptions in its previous thirteen games. If Sanchez ever had a cause to feel confident this season, Monday night would have been the time.
The game started off positively enough. Sanchez led his team to scoring range and even thought he'd thrown a touchdown pass before officials overturned the Jeff Cumberland catch, but Nick Folk nailed a 22-yard field goal to put New York on the board. Upon further review, Titans penalties accounted for 29 of the 63 yards earned on the scoring drive, but the Jets held onto the ball and actually put points up after an opening possession. After a mostly ineffective (but still turnover free) second possession, offensive coordinator Tony Sparano elected to clunkily incorporate Tim Tebow for an entire drive. Tebow hadn't seen the field since before Thanksgiving, and the timing of his drive was somewhat confusing. Not confusing for the Titans defense, which allowed just 17 yards to be gained, but for Jets fans and viewers at home. Sanchez was playing okay. Why mess with it?
Ryan spoke before the game and described the various ways they'd hoped to use Tebow this season. He was meant to be seamlessly integrated on a regular basis, adding another dimension to the offense. But he hasn't been used on a regular basis, and his integration has been anything but seamless. The coaching staff was cognizant enough of Sanchez's fragile ego that it elected to inactivate McElroy in his last two starts. Why would it think handing Tebow the reins for an entire possession wouldn't affect their starter in any way?
And maybe it wasn't the psychological side effects of Tebow's presence that caused such a rapid deterioration in Sanchez's performance. Perhaps it was simply the act of taking Sanchez out of his rhythm, which can be vital in establishing a quarterback's path to success each game. But either way, Sanchez threw an interception on his very next pass. He would commit an additional four turnovers before the night was through, including the fumble that would end New York's season.
With a score of 14-10 in the fourth quarter, Sanchez threw back-to-back interceptions, including one with under two minutes remaining. All Tennessee needed to do was advance the ball even a little bit, and victory would belong to the Titans. But a funny thing happened, as the Jets defense (which was awfully strong all evening, allowing 14 points in spite of four interceptions) held Tennessee to a three and out. The Titans punted, but the punt went just 19 yards and resulted in a Jets possession at the Titans 25 yard line. Here was a golden opportunity for Sanchez to forget all his missteps and simply focus on earning a win and, with it, the right to stay alive for the postseason.
Instead, he fumbled a low snap and failed to fall on it. The Titans recovered the football and, just like that, the Jets playoff hopes were mercifully extinguished. Next steps have yet to be determined as Ryan has declined to name a Week 16 starter, but New York has no choice but to rebuild. Whether that means a new quarterback, offensive line, receiving corps or even head coach and/or general manager, expect the Jets to look drastically different by next preseason.
As for Sanchez, who knows where he'll end up? But he may well have played his final snaps as an NFL starter, and if this season's series of gaffes and miscues is any indication, perhaps the end of his career comes as mercifully as the end of his playoff hopes.
Kim O'Hara is the Associate Editor of TheFootballGirl.com. She is an avid fan of sports in general, but the NFL in particular. She has also been a contributor to ESPN the Magazine. Follow her on Twitter: @KimOHaraTFG
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