Here is one question to ponder as Mark Sanchez embarks on his 66th chance to prove he is a worthy NFL quarterback: When, exactly, did Rex Ryan become one of those coaches he used to ridicule?
The company man. The risk-avoider. The one who treats the most insignificant information as state secrets. Ryan not only promised he’d be the opposite of that when he took over the Jets, but he also poked fun at the drab Belichick clones that were everywhere else in the league.
“I speak from the heart — that’s who I am,” Ryan said back then, clearly not like those other guys who are just mouthpieces for their teams. He was the guy who’d break the mold, the straight shooter.
Turns out, he’s no different from anybody else with a failing record, just coaching for his job. Because if Ryan was really the brash risk-taker, he would have stuck with his hunch that this team needed a change at quarterback and given Greg McElroy another shot against Jacksonville this weekend.
Instead, Ryan announced he was going back to the Same Old Sanchez. He insisted Wednesday that this was “a decision I feel great about” and that he was “looking forward to seeing Mark play,” but he looked as enthusiastic as a hostage holding up a newspaper as proof of life.
Starting Sanchez isn’t the right move, but it is the safe move. Had Ryan gone with McElroy or even Tim Tebow, he would have had to answer all the questions about that contract extension the Jets gave Sanchez in the offseason, about the $8.25 million the quarterback is owed for 2013.
He insisted the money had “absolutely zero” to do with the decision. But when a fourth-year starter already has 18 turnovers in 12 games — and five in the last two alone — what else can it be? The Jets declared that Sanchez was their franchise quarterback when they gave him that extension, and Wednesday Ryan dutifully stuck with that script the way any good company man would.
No one is suggesting that McElroy is Johnny Unitas. There’s a reason most seventh-round draft picks don’t go higher, and his performance in the victory over Arizona (5-of-7 passing, 29 yards) didn’t exactly make the country adjust their fantasy football rosters.
It’s also possible, maybe likely, that no Jets quarterback could have a productive season with the lack of talent at the skill positions. Still, McElroy gave this team a jolt when he entered the game in the third quarter. It felt right, like Ryan had the pulse of his team and made the kind of change that could unify it.
If there was anybody who would keep rolling the dice on a third-stringer, it was that brash guy who talked about shaking President Obama’s hand that first day on the job. But that coach is gone.
“I believe Mark has a skill set that’s pretty impressive,” he said Wednesday, as if GM Mike Tannenbaum was holding a cue card in the back of the room. “He can make all the throws.”
Sometimes, even to the right team!
“Obviously, I have to get this decision right,” the head coach said, “and I believe I have.”
On the first part of that, he’s right. From the moment the team traded up to draft Sanchez in 2009, Ryan knew his head coaching career would be tied to the kid from Southern Cal.
Sanchez was diplomatic Wednesday. He called the benching “the worst and best experience of my life” and insisted that Ryan was sending him a message. “It was well-received. I know. I got it.”
So he’ll get yet another shot, and maybe against the weak schedule to end the season, he’ll turn it around. But then what? Unless the Jets find a trade partner convinced they can turn Sanchez into a winner, Ryan is stuck with him in 2013 — and, if the Jets miss the playoffs this season, he’ll be battling for his coaching life.
This was Ryan’s chance to try something different, to see if McElroy was the answer. Sanchez is completing 55 percent of his passes again — remember the heady days when the Jets wanted him to break into the mid 60s? — but somehow, he’s harder to fire than a tenured professor.
Out in Seattle, a former Jets coach tossed Matt Flynn — who had just signed a three-year, $19.5 million deal with $10 million guaranteed — to the bench in favor of a third-round pick named Russell Wilson. Now Pete Carroll and the Seahawks are in a position to make the playoffs with Wilson, who is widely regarded as one of the promising young quarterbacks in the league.
Ryan, with a chance to be bold, stuck with the Same Old Sanchez. Turns out, the coach who was supposed to be the risk-taker is just another company man trying to keep his job.
Steve Politi: firstname.lastname@example.org
; Twitter: @StevePoliti