Once it became clear that the Jets would not be front-runners to acquire Manning, they quickly passed it off as though they never had interest, and they expressed their commitment to incumbent quarterback Mark Sanchez by signing him to a three-year contract extension.
What has happened less than two weeks later could not have been on the team's mind at the time.
On Monday, Manning informed the Denver Broncos that he had decided to play there, and on Tuesday, he was officially signed to a five-year, $96 million contract. After signing Manning, the Broncos made the decision to trade Tim Tebow, the quarterback who led them to the playoffs last season and became the NFL’s top media phenomenon in the process.
Suddenly, with Tebow available on the market, the Jets became less committed to the quarterback that they signed to a contract extension. And on Wednesday, the Jets made a deal with the Broncos, trading a pair of late-round picks in exchange for Tebow and a seventh-rounder.
The trade for Tebow is a great move for the New York Jets. The move is low-risk—the Jets only gave up two Day 3 draft picks, acquiring a player whose base salary for next season is only $1.1 million (although the Jets also repay the Broncos $2.5 million—half of Tebow’s guaranteed money—which is the agreed-upon settlement to the contract dispute that nearly killed this deal).
However, it could lead them to regret the recent deal they made with Mark Sanchez, a move with deeper ramifications for the Jets going forward.
Sanchez should go into training camp this summer as the Jets’ starting quarterback, and he should be expected to maintain that status heading into the 2012 NFL season. This move could have a positive effect on Sanchez—bringing in the high-profile Tebow to put a competitive pressure on Sanchez’s starting quarterback job could motivate Sanchez to perform at a higher level.
However, a major factor in the team's quarterback situation going forward could be the outspoken voices of the New York media and Jets fans. Sanchez struggled last season, and as a result, he has been heavily criticized for his lack of improvement in his three NFL seasons thus far.
As media criticism toward Sanchez rose over the course of last season, Sanchez appeared to lose confidence in himself, and his performance continued to decline as a result. Sanchez threw 18 interceptions last season, seven of which came in a season-ending, three-game losing streak.
Sanchez was already on the hot seat following the way last season ended, as Sanchez’s turnover-prone passing led to those three losses and the Jets missing the postseason. The Jets doused the flames by committing to him with that three-year contract extension, which is worth an additional $40.5 million. By bringing in Tebow, the temperature will rise once again.
While Sanchez’s experiences with the media have resulted in more criticism than praise as of late, Tebow was the media darling of the entire NFL this past season. The phenomenon known as “Tebowmania” captivated sports fans nationwide, as Tebow—assuming the role of starting quarterback of the 1-3 Broncos—proved himself as a clutch winner and led them not only to the postseason, but an overtime playoff victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The starting-quarterback job is Sanchez’s to lose. Expect Tebow to initially be used as a role player in the Jets' offense—one who will be featured in special packages as a Wildcat quarterback, especially in short-yardage and goal-line situations. That said, it will not take much for the media to piggyback Tebow, heralding him as the player who should be the starting signal-caller for the Jets.
Picture this scenario: The Jets are trailing in a game, the offense is struggling, and Mark Sanchez has turned the ball over multiple times. In an effort to change the momentum of the game, head coach Rex Ryan makes the decision to insert Tebow into the game at quarterback. Tebow responds to the situation by leading the Jets on a comeback rally.
In that scenario, even if Tebow’s efforts did not result in a victory, the statement would still be made. As soon as Sanchez struggles, the Jets lose games and Tebow comes in and makes clutch plays, the media and fans will beckon ruthlessly for Sanchez to be benched and Tebow to become the starter.
Jets fans have a history of throwing their starting quarterback under the bus when they feel the backup is the superior player. In 2007, when Chad Pennington was injured in a loss to the New England Patriots, the fans cheered, as they had been calling for Pennington to be replaced by Kellen Clemens.
Clemens, a second-round draft pick of the Jets in 2006, ended up being a big disappointment, and his hype in New York never approached the nationwide popularity that Tim Tebow has established. If Jets fans were ready to throw Pennington under the bus for Clemens, they will not hesitate to criticize Sanchez in favor of Tebow.
While the Jets are unlikely to make their quarterback decision based upon the desires of media and fans, if Sanchez loses confidence and struggles, the Jets should make the decision to bench him and promote Tebow.
If Tebow becomes the starter in New York, continues his winning ways as their quarterback and ends up supplanting Sanchez for the long-term as the Jets’ franchise quarterback, the Jets will have serious regrets about the contract extension they have given Sanchez. Under his new deal, Sanchez is set to cost the team $58.25 million over the next five seasons, including $20.5 million in guaranteed money.
Sanchez is now the eighth-highest paid quarterback in the National Football League, which would make him a very expensive backup quarterback if that becomes the case.
The Jets’ decision to re-sign Sanchez was likely a move to prove that they were not abandoning him in their pursuit of Manning—a move that would boost Sanchez’s confidence by displaying their confidence in him. The Jets should not have been so short-sighted.
They are now in a position where Sanchez could lose even more confidence as the subject of media fire. Furthermore, had they hesitated to offer Sanchez the extension, they would have forced him into earning the starting-quarterback job in a competition with Tebow, rather than saddling themselves with a large financial commitment that they could very well end up regretting.
The Jets do have one relieving caveat in the deal: In working out the contract extension, the Jets front-loaded all of the guaranteed money for the next two seasons. Sanchez’s full salary is guaranteed for each of the next two seasons, but the Jets could release him prior to the 2014 season without owing anything more.
Nonetheless, if Sanchez ends up as a backup by the end of the 2012 season, the Jets could be stuck with a very expensive second-string player through 2013, thus limiting the cap room they will have available to pursue more players to build around whomever ultimately becomes the team's quarterback.
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For more analysis of the 2012 NFL offseason, follow me on Twitter @Dan_Hope.