Four years ago, Mark Sanchez was the NFL's ultimate Jetsetter, beginning his draft day with a transcontinental trip from the Big Apple to Tinseltown and ending it with a triumphant return flight to his new professional promised land.
As the newly anointed franchise quarterback of the New York Jets, who had traded up to select him with the fifth overall pick of the 2009 draft, Sanchez was soaring toward instant stardom with a pair of AFC championship game appearances on the horizon.
On Friday, in a metaphorical sense, Air Sanchize crash-landed, completing a two-year tailspin that reflects as poorly on the Jets as it does their embattled quarterback. Thirteen months after trading for Tim Tebow, the Jets drafted former West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith with the seventh pick of the second round, enhancing their reputation as an organization without a coherent flight plan.
As one highly regarded NFL coach put it so succinctly Friday night, "That place is a cluster[expletive]."
It was a lousy day for Sanchez — and an even worse one for the quarterback who succeeded him at USC, Matt Barkley. Heralded as a potential top-five pick heading into the 2012 draft, Barkley officially became the leading candidate to serve as the front man for a Don't Stay In School public-service announcement.
In a continuing freefall that's making the 2006 green-room squirm of another ex-Trojans passer, Matt Leinart, look like a mere step off the curb, Barkley went undrafted again on Friday, meaning he'll come off the board Saturday as no better than a fourth-round pick, and the presumptive backup status that comes with it.
Playing quarterback at SC used to be one of the sports world's glamour positions. Now it's akin to being the Spinal Tap drummer — and someone should have cued up "Big Bottom" at Barkley's draft gathering in Newport Beach, Calif., Friday, given how much unwanted couch time the kid has endured.
It wasn't supposed to play out this way. After the Buffalo Bills surprised the football world Thursday night by selecting Florida State's E.J. Manuel with the 16th overall selection, the remaining quartet of highly rated-quarterbacks (Smith, Barkley, Syracuse's Ryan Nassib and North Carolina State's Mike Glennon) seemed to be ripe for the picking early in Friday's second round, with quarterback-needy teams like the Jacksonville Jaguars, Cleveland Browns, Arizona Cardinals and Oakland Raiders in prime position.
Instead, each of those teams passed on passers. At some point, it became clear that all the talk about this being a weak draft class for quarterbacks had actually been understated, a rarity in pre-draft practice.
"To be honest, it's getting to the point where it's embarrassing," a talent evaluator for one of those quarterback-needy teams texted from the team's war room during Friday's third round. "Maybe they are just that average."
To paraphrase Jay-Z: Three rounds in, and that's a one [not-so-hot] quarterback every one round average — and that's so laaaaameeee.
If the draft class of '83 was the Year of the Quarterback, and last year's terrific trio (Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson) of rookie passers provided a titillating encore, this is shaping up as the Wait 'Till Next Year draft, with Barkley and Nassib as the most glaring casualties.
It's possible Barkley could go off the board as early as the first pick of Saturday's fourth round, currently held by the Jaguars, who could select him or trade it to a team seeking to bring him into the fold. Even if that happens, however, Barkley can look forward to holding a clipboard for the foreseeable future.
For all he accomplished during his four years as USC's starter, it's clear Barkley's reputation took a massive beating as the Trojans plummeted from national-title contention to irrelevance in 2012.
"Physically, he's just a guy," the aforementioned NFL coach said of Barkley Friday night. "Average arm, stature, decision-making and athletic ability, but a heady guy. Who like him is elite? Is he the next Drew Brees? Maybe, but nobody seems to think so."
As for the others: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers took Glennon in the third round, likely envisioning him as a backup to Josh Freeman. That was well after the Jets selected Smith, whose flight instincts had gotten the better of him following a fruitless night in the green room Thursday, before he was apparently persuaded to return to Radio City Music Hall for a second evening.
Now, Smith will cross the Hudson and enter the Green Room, as in Gang Green, as in The Circus. When all is said and done, he may consider Barkley and Nassib to have been the lucky ones, though there's no telling what he'll encounter as a rookie or how the currently crowded depth chart may shape-shift by September.
As of today, there are a half-dozen quarterbacks on the Jets' roster: Sanchez, Smith, Tebow, former Jacksonville Jaguars starter David Garrard, Greg McElroy and Matt Simms. Though Tebow is presumed to be serving out a pit stop on the road to Canada — or to football oblivion, or to the Florida Governor's mansion, or to unmatched televangelist superstardom — newly hired Jets general manager John Idzik is still holding onto this mismatched six-pack.
Quick, someone call Donald Trump and turn this into a "Celebrity Apprentice" offshoot. I'm especially looking forward to the episode in which The Donald tells Tebow "You're fired" — and is immediately besieged by a swarm of locusts. But I digress …
It's not funny to Sanchez, of course. Though his immediate financial future is secure, thanks to the heavily guaranteed contract ($8.25 million for 2013) that helped get former general manager Mike Tannenbaum fired, he could find himself out of a job in the near future. Though it would cost the Jets dearly against the salary cap — a reported $12.35 million this year and $4.8 million next year if he's designated a June 1 cut — ESPN's Adam Schefter reported Friday that they'll consider releasing him in the wake of Smith's selection.
Or, as a person close to Sanchez mused on Friday: "Are they trying to make him so uncomfortable — bullying him, basically — that they'll force him into saying, 'Get me the [expletive] out of here'? Then they can say, 'Restructure your deal, take a pay cut, and we can work out a trade.' "
If that's the Jets' strategy, it'll likely be about as effective as Idzik's recent efforts to create the perception that the team was prepared to retain Darrelle Revis, just before the star cornerback was dealt to the Bucs. Tampa Bay general manager Mark Dominick didn't flinch, and you can bet Sanchez won't, either.
This is the cluster that keeps on giving, one transparent fiasco at a time. It's true that Sanchez is far from blameless, having committed a league-high 52 turnovers over the past two seasons. After that promising two-year stretch to start his career, he has regressed noticeably, and in 2012 he looked like lifeless and dispossessed of confidence, leading many NFL coaches to regard him as unsalvageable.
And yet, for the most part, I put this on the Jets. With owner Woody Johnson seemingly more excited by hype than infrastructure, with an organizational string of dubious decisions and double-downs that lack consistency and coherence, I see the quarterback's struggles as a byproduct of the dysfunction, rather than the root.
From the collapse of the offensive line, to the dearth of offensive weapons, to the ill-fitted hiring of Tony Sparano as offensive coordinator, to the trade for Tebow and the drama that inevitably ensued, the Jets' powerbrokers have conjured this mess.
"They're kind of creating the manual on how not to develop a young quarterback in the NFL," said the person close to Sanchez. "It's 'let's disintegrate the offense, bring in the most wildly popular player in the league as a backup and, now, draft Geno Smith.' "
What could possibly go wrong?
Like Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense, I see dead people — or, at least, fired ones. Maybe Rex Ryan, a supremely shrewd defensive strategist, can coach his way out of this, but it's hard to imagine him not being someone else's defensive coordinator in 2014. And if Sanchez, best-case scenario, sticks around, beats out Smith and keeps his starting job, does he really have a fighting chance of reversing the organizational inertia that has helped land him in this predicament?
More than likely, he's as doomed in the Jets' huddle as a guy playing the skins for Spinal Tap. Put it this way: don't expect to hear chants of "four more years" emanating from MetLife Stadium stands anytime soon.
Then again, at least Sanchez still has a gig. Day 3 of the 2013 draft is upon us, and the guy who succeeded him at USC still doesn't have an NFL playbook.
NFL.com's coverage of Jets' logjam at QB:
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• Jags content with Blaine Gabbert, keep passing up QBs