What a disaster the 2012 season has been for the New York Jets.
Now the fallout begins. General manager Mike Tannenbaum was fired, but head coach Rex Ryan stays. Why did Ryan survive? If I had to guess, Ryan probably played the injury card. How could anyone expect the Jets to succeed when their two best playmakers---Darrelle Revis and Santonio Holmes---were lost to season-ending injuries, and tight end Dustin Keller couldn’t stay healthy? I don’t know if this is the best fix for the Jets’ problems. It is now beyond dispute that Ryan doesn't care about offense and wants to find someone/anyone who will just take it off his plate. That’s what the Peyton Manning flirtation was all about; that’s why he chose Tony Sparano as his offensive coordinator. Ryan doesn’t care about offensive innovation or quarterback development. He wants old school ground and pound. Why Sparano would take a job predicated on that kind of attack without a premiere running back on the roster, who knows. But Sparano will be out the door soon enough.
Ryan is not going to change. He’ll still be the fiery motivator with good defensive schemes who plays well in the New York media. But unless something changes, the Jets will be right back here next season and probably looking at a 6-10 record again. So, what to do?
The way to turn this around is for the Jets to hire a smart, young and innovative general manager who wants to make a name for himself by fixing the team. New York is no longer in "win-now" mode. They don’t have the players for that. Whomever interviews needs to make this crystal clear to ownership: 2013 is a rebuilding season. The salary cap situation for next season is onerous. I’d let any free agent who wants to start a bidding war walk, do everything to stockpile draft picks and make sure that the scouting department is made over with an emphasis on finding diamonds in the rough in the later rounds of the draft and undrafted free agents. Somebody has to do a ruthless evaluation of the talent on the current roster. That someone is not named Ryan. The Jets do have some pieces, but they also have a lot of detritus that either need to be released or packaged and traded for whatever the market will bring.
The Jets focus in April’s draft needs to be offensive line. More than anything else, finding young, talented linemen will lay the foundation for this team for the next five-to-10 years. If the Jets learned nothing else over the last two years, it’s that if you cannot protect your quarterback you have no chance of winning.
Which brings us to quarterback.
What to do with Mark Sanchez? Sanchez is not an elite quarterback. That being said, he is a lot better than people give him credit for. Just as an example, consider his durability. It only took one game as a starter for Greg McElroy to be concussed and unable to start the following week. He was sacked eleven times against San Diego. You have to give Sanchez some credit for withstanding the brutal assaults he has endured the past two years.
It’s hard to evaluate Sanchez because success for him on this team depends on so many variables. He has shown he can play at the highest levels especially in the 2009 and 2010 playoffs. So why have the last two years been so awful?
First, there is no getting around the fact that the offensive personnel has declined. The line has deteriorated and no longer has depth. An offense predicated on ground and pound does needs a running back that opposing defenses fear. There is not much talent at the skill positions. The wideouts struggle to get open against press coverage, or are so new and raw that they don’t run routes correctly. There is no explosive playmaker. Add all that up and opponents tee off against Sanchez. He is under constant duress. Scrambling for his life and health (different from scrambling when a play breaks down). His footwork, mechanics and accuracy go out the window. Trying to make something happen, Sanchez starts to force throws or stare down receivers. And then here come the demoralizing turnovers.
But that is fixable. The related issue is coaching. Quarterbacks coach Matt Cavanaugh needs to go. He’s been with Sanchez for four years. He should have been the one screaming to Ryan and Tannenbaum last year that the Jets are in big trouble if they don’t resolve the protection issues. Instead, the Jets stand pat. He should have been the one constantly (on every single play) in Sanchez’s ear saying: "don’t force it," "protect the football" and "don’t stare down your receivers or throw into double or triple coverage."
Further, the position of offensive coordinator has been completely unable to solve these problems for the last two years. It’s not like the Jets were coming up with new and creative ways to lose each week. It was the same thing every time: no power run game, ineffective pass protection, predictable play-calling and a quarterback who defaults into "hero-ball" mode trying to force a win, which ends up becoming a turnover.
I’m not absolving Sanchez here. He didn't himself any favors after being benched against San Diego and then coming right back and having another two turnover game---including a pick-six. That’s decision making and carelessness, and it’s on him. But he is not the sole reason the Jets offensive mess, and if you don’t believe me, ask McElroy. I’m not even going to get into the season long distraction that was Tim Tebow. My feelings on the subject are well known.
If the Jets really are in rebuilding mode (which is what they should be although my guess is, it will not be what they do), they should hang onto Sanchez next year, keep McElroy and see if they have anything there and look for a later round draft pick quarterback to try to develop. It’s a pretty thin draft class as far as quarterbacks are concerned.
However, if I were advising "Team Sanchez," I’d put feelers out and explore all my options for a trade scenario. I know Sanchez will not like that. He’s a loyal guy and I’m sure he’d see leaving the Jets as a sign of failure. But this team at present is toxic and the Sanchez fatigue among the fans is real. The defense resents the offense’s inability to do their part. The offensive coordinator and general manager---and therefore the direction of the team---are open questions.
Sanchez is like a pitcher in baseball who suddenly cannot locate the strike zone (Rick Ankiel's 2000 playoff meltdown). His confidence has eroded. Sometimes in those cases a change of scenery is what is needed. In spite of a poor showing at the end of the season, Sanchez does have some leverage. For one, the Jets owe him a good chunk of money. If Sanchez’s agents can work a deal where that burden is eased from the Jets, maybe some sort of trade could be worked out. But I know Sanchez wants to start and there are not many other openings around the league. He didn't do himself any favors with his turnover prone performances either. Unfortunately, he may have played himself into a backup role. Part of that is his responsibility.
So the Jets circus will continue. That won’t change until someone with a no-nonsense attitude and a clear-eyed vision for the future built on fundamentals---not flash and a sharp eye for talent---shows up on the scene.
Right now, the Jets organization does not employ that person.