What now for No. 6?
After last season, I wrote a post about the decline of the New York Jets in the third take of Rex Ryan's attempt to bring the city's less historically successful football team to the sport's promised land. Between the reported locker room fracture, inconsistency by Mark Sanchez and slight dip in the team's defensive ranking, the Jets missed the playoffs for the first time in three seasons.
Talking smack and making ballsy predictions only garners respect as long as on-the-field production remains a constant. As soon as performance dwindles, any existing credibility dissolves, and empty promises become punchlines.
But the main point of this article is not to say that the entire team has opened its collective mouth much too often, nor to elaborate on the fact that the defense has slipped in yards allowed per game each season under Ryan's control—from first to third to fifth, and finally to its current position of 19th.
Rather, this article will discuss the personnel decisions of GM Mike Tannenbaum and the rest of the front office, which have undermined Mark Sanchez's development.
Like most people, I do not believe that Mark Sanchez is the team's answer going forward. I would love the team to find out what it has in Tim Tebow and Greg McElroy, but the odds of a demotion for the overpaid incumbent quarterback are likely to be slim to none.
Sanchez continues to make the same fundamental mistakes in ball protection that had almost doomed the team in his rookie season. In this season, he has been unable to maximize the surrounding talent with any consistency and checks down far too often on passing plays.
Regression is not a fair assessment, but stagnation seems fair.
With that said, he is not just the poster boy for the Jets' underachievement, but also a victim of off-the-field failure. His failure to elevate the play of the shaky receiving corps and inability to protect the ball are the results of Mike Tannenbaum's miscalculations.
This mess started when Thomas Jones and Alan Faneca were shown the door and replaced by LaDainian Tomlinson and Matt Slauson after Sanchez's rookie season. Sure, there wasn't a clear drop in team performance, as the team was able to return to the AFC Championship Game, but the team lost two locker-room leaders.
The boat rocked further in the next offseason when Tannenbaum chose Plaxico Burress and Derrick Mason over Braylon Edwards and Jerricho Cotchery—two of Sanchez's top-four receiving targets in his second season.
The other two? Dustin Keller and Santonio Holmes, who had been acquired after Sanchez's rookie season for a fifth-round pick.
After the second season, both Edwards and Holmes were free agents. The choice for the latter was at a near-consensus among media, fans and the front office, which almost immediately re-signed Holmes and let Edwards walk. Money was the alleged reason, yet Burress ultimately signed for the same amount as Edwards did in San Francisco.
In the eyes of Tannenbaum, Burress—a bona fide red-zone threat—and Mason would upgrade the receiving position and help the team to make the last leap to the Super Bowl after falling just short in the previous two seasons.
While Burress clearly helped in the red zone with eight receiving touchdowns—albeit little elsewhere—Mason immediately tanked and was sent to Houston. Without the deep threat formerly provided by Edwards, defenses were able to keep closer tabs on Holmes, a glorified slot receiver.
Sanchez was lost in the shuffle.
He was also troubled by the retirement of right tackle stalwart Damien Woody, after he tore his Achilles tendon in the team's second postseason run.
Did these changes to the offensive line impact pass protection?
New York gave up a whopping 12 sacks more in the third year of the Ryan/Sanchez era than in the second year. Wayne Hunter was little more than a revolving door at right tackle, and Slauson struggled in assignments between All-Pros D'Brickashaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold.
As a result of these changes, "Ground 'n' Pound" became nothing more than a moniker by the third year. After leading the league in rushing yards per game in Sanchez's rookie season and ranking fourth in his sophomore season, the team fell to 22nd place.
Unsurprisingly, Matt Slauson and Wayne Hunter were unable to open the same running holes that Alan Faneca and Damien Woody had provided.
Shonn Greene failed to live up to the hype created by an impressive postseason display in his rookie season, and LT was only a shell of himself from the previous season.
With the running game offering less of a threat and the offensive line providing little time for Sanchez to survey the field and throw, it isn't shocking that Sanchez stalled from year two to three.
Touchdowns, interceptions and pass attempts all increased in relatively similar terms, while completion percentage and rating ticked upward.
After Plaxico left after one season, Tannenbaum drafted the raw, but prototypically built, Stephen Hill in April's draft. He also signed Chaz Schilens to complement Holmes and fellow slot receiver Jeremy Kerley.
Even before Schilens' season-ending injury, the receiving group was a weaker cast than the last season's forgettable crew, particularly in the red zone. Without Plaxico and—to a lesser extent—Holmes, the team's touchdown percentage from possessions in the red zone this season has declined by almost a third when compared to last season.
After Brian Schottenheimer unsuccessfully tried to increase Sanchez's workload last season (another reason for the Jets' significant decline in rushing production—they ran the ball almost six times less a game last season than the season before), Ryan surmised that the cure for New York's offensive woes was a return to a run-first offense.
As a result, Wildcat visionary Tony Sparano was hired as the new offensive coordinator. And what did GM Mike Tannenbaum do to help Sanchez make the all-important step forward in his fourth season?
Sign Tim Tebow, of course!
Without legitimate receivers to spread the field as well as limited backfield talent, the running game has faltered.
Greene and Bilal Powell are north-south runners with limited lateral quickness and top-end speed. Joe McKnight is the team's only home-run threat, but he has had very few carries.
The much hyped, Tebow-led Wildcat has been Tony Sparano's grand failure, with overly simplistic, predictable play calls and a refusal to commit to it throughout the season.
The result has been increased pressure on Sanchez to carry the offense, which he simply is unable to do.
In my previous post on the Jets' fall last season, I compared the stats of Mark Sanchez and Eli Manning through the first three seasons of their respective careers.
Interestingly, Sanchez's projected stat line for this season is similar to Manning's fourth season. Sanchez is projected to have a 55.4 completion percentage, 6.68 yards per pass attempt, 3,402 yards, 17 touchdowns, 15 interceptions and a quarterback rating of 75.6.
In his fourth season, Manning had a 56.1 completion percentage, 6.31 yards per pass attempt, 3,336 yards, 23 touchdowns, 20 interceptions and a rating of 73.9.
Manning even had seven lost fumbles. Sanchez, so far, has five.
Like the Jets in Sanchez's first two seasons, the Giants made the playoffs that year almost entirely because of the defense (ranked seventh and led the league in sacks) and fourth-ranked running game (led by Brandon Jacobs, Derrick Ward and Ahmad Bradshaw).
Before the playoff run, Manning seemed to be a liability. He was carried by the team's great offensive and defensive lines, as well as his skill players.
My main point in this comparison is that you don't support your quarterback through empty affirmative statements. You support him through smart personnel decisions and stability.
In his first four seasons, Manning never dealt with the fluctuating line changes at the wide receiver and running back positions that Sanchez has experienced. Manning was able to grow comfortable with Plaxico Burress, Amani Toomer and Jeremy Shockey, and he had the benefits of a good running game (ranked top 10 in each of three full seasons).
With that said, Manning walked the fine line between boom or bust before that Super Bowl victory.
Super Bowls change quarterbacks, and Manning is a prime example.
Sanchez currently straddles the same fine line, but his fall into the bust category seems inevitable at this point.
Sanchez may never have become a great QB, but in the team's two playoff runs, he played at a high enough level to give the Jets a chance to reach the Super Bowl.
As was the case for Manning in 2007-08, a great defense and running game got the Jets to the playoffs in 2009-10 and 2010-11. Ironically, it was the defense that ultimately faltered, not Sanchez.
Since then, not only has the offensive talent around him dropped dramatically, but the defense has fallen off after three very good seasons.
Tannenbaum's job, since drafting Sanchez in 2009, has been to give a team in win-now mode the best chance to reach the Super Bowl.
Unfortunately for the Jets, almost every move has degraded a once solid foundation.
Mixed messages of win-now mode and change, whether through personnel or offensive philosophy, have stranded a player who needed coddling from the start, but lost that crutch once the coach and GM felt impervious to failure.