It took until the fourth preseason game for the formerly high-flying New York Jets to get their first offensive touchdown. They scored on a six-yard play action pass from third-string quarterback Greg McElroy, as Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow watched from the sidelines.
The outcome was the same as the previous three games, however: the Jets lost, suffering a 28-10 defeat to the Philadelphia Eagles. Preseason is meaningless in terms of the standings, of course, but the overall offensive sluggishness had to be disconcerting to the front office.
While Sanchez and Tebow get most of the attention — the NFL loves a good quarterback controversy and Tebow is now the league’s most famous backup — head coach Rex Ryan may be the one on the hot seat. Ryan arrived in New York promising not to kiss AFC East rival Bill Belichick’s rings. He hasn’t earned any new rings himself, despite annual promises to win the Super Bowl.
Ryan hasn’t guaranteed any trips to the big game so far this year, and he belatedly acknowledged that his loquaciousness was at times a liability to the team. But Ryan hasn’t completely changed his big-talking ways, most recently asserting that Georgia Tech wide receiver Stephen Hill — the Jets’ second round draft pick — wasn’t his choice.
“Well, nothing told me he would [contribute],” Ryan told Sports Illustrated. “Nothing.” Hill is a player the Jets will need to step up in a big way if they are to challenge the New England Patriots in the division and return to the playoffs. Ryan subsequently praised Hill in the same interview, saying, “But now that we have him, of course, I want to claim him.”
But if he really wanted to help the young player’s development, perhaps he should shut up.
The Jets went 8-8 and missed the playoffs last year after exhibiting some of the tendencies on display in the preseason: an inability to move the ball on offense and a defense that is great in coverage but sometimes lackluster at rushing the passer.
Sanchez has struggled at quarterback, thriving on slants and bootlegs but otherwise developing a limited repertoire. As the Jets’ “ground and pound” running game has declined, so has his effectiveness. Sanchez is good in play action, but it is hard to make those plays without a credible running game. He tends to throw interceptions at inconvenient times.
Since last season, Sanchez’s problems have only multiplied. John Elway couldn’t have played behind such a porous offensive line, although things might improve since the Jets shipped disastrous right tackle Wayne Hunter to St. Louis. The quality of receiver has declined, with only the temperamental Santonio Holmes a true number one.
Tebow was brought in as a gadget player and change-of-pace wildcat quarterback, though that hasn’t quelled speculation he is gunning for Sanchez’s job. But Tebow didn’t look any better than Sanchez in preseason, remaining a far more effective runner than passer.
None of these problems are exactly surprises, which is why Ryan seems to be in a precarious position. If the Jets at least return to the playoffs, last season will appear to be a fluke. Ryan will have gotten his team into the postseason three out of four years at the helm, including two consecutive appearances in the AFC Championship.
If the Jets miss the playoffs again, however, questions will arise. The team legitimately looked like a Super Bowl contender in 2010, coming back from some humiliating late-season losses to post an 11-5 record and come within a score of beating the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship.
The Jets bounced back from a devastating 45-3 pasting at the hands of the Patriots in the regular season to beat them 28-21 in the Divisional Round. The Jets’ defense was stout and Sanchez played some of his best football that year in the playoffs.
But if the Indianapolis Colts hadn’t pulled Peyton Manning and the starters during a late-season meeting with the Jets in 2009, the New York football squad probably would have gone 8-8 and missed the playoffs like they did in 2011. Sanchez played well in the playoffs, but his 9-7 Jets certainly backed in.
No playoff berth for the Jets this year and suddenly 2010 looks like the fluke, not last season. Ryan will once again have allowed his mouth to write him a check that his posterior couldn’t cash.
The Jets have the chance to right the ship. It starts with better pass protection for Sanchez. Perhaps Tebow can enliven the running game and force opposing defensive coordinators to chew up valuable time preparing for big plays that may or may not be called. Former North Carolina defensive end Quinton Coples, the Jets’ top draft pick, could emerge as a leading pass rusher.
After all, the Jets will be playing for their reputation. And Ryan might be coaching for his job.