CORTLAND, N.Y. – Jets fan No. 1: "I should probably get a picture of [Mark] Sanchez. He is the starter."
Jets fan No. 2: "Sanchez is a lot better but you wouldn't know it. The offense is so atrocious. See that scrimmage? Looked like Cortland out there. They'll probably put [Tim] Tebow out there and just say 'Run for your life.' "
Ah, Jets fans. The painful eventuality these jaded folks feared entering training camp went something like this: The pressure of Tebow's popularity would overwhelm Sanchez, and he would crumble while the Chosen One ascended.
That hasn't happened … yet. Sanchez looks strong. His throws have zip, he has better pocket presence, and he's a leader in a way he hasn't always been in the past.
"He's letting his feet talk to him," raves backup quarterback Greg McElroy. "He's not holding the ball for a certain route. He's done a great job of working with the protection and working with Nick [Mangold] up front. He's done a great job of getting better."
But Tebow's likely going to end up starting at some point anyway.
The problem is not Sanchez; it's the offense. That was clear Wednesday morning as balls got tipped, picked off, dropped, or simply left to hit the ground.
"It was probably the most interceptions we've had in any practice this year," head coach Rex Ryan said. With only one day left before the Jets leave camp, Sanchez was 9-of-13 with two picks. He was "sacked" three times – meaning he would have been dropped in a real game.
Tebow wasn't any better, but the offense's limitations could end up being to the new guy's advantage. After all, when you have a stellar defense and an offense overrun with young players and injuries, would you rather have a deep-threat or ball-control offense?
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Think about it: Who are Sanchez's options? Santonio Holmes is still injured and may be out for the rest of the preseason. (Ryan says that having the only veteran receiver out is "certainly not ideal." That's an understatement.) Behind Holmes? Newcomer Chaz Schilens is still hurt; he rode the bike during Wednesday's practice. Second-year wideout Jeremy Kerley is also out. Unquestionably, the team is hoping that rookie first-rounder Stephen Hill has an immediate impact, and seldom-used Patrick Turner has a shot to see playing time as well.
So the Jets' offense has a young receiving corps, a good tight end (Dustin Keller), and a merely decent running back combination (Shonn Greene and Joe McKnight). In other words: the 2011 Denver Broncos.
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The parallels to Tebow's former team are even stronger on defense, as the Jets have been top-five in fewest yards allowed in each of Ryan's three seasons with the club. It's so obvious the playmakers are on that side of the ball that cornerback Antonio Cromartie was the most noticeable pass-catcher on the field Wednesday. Dressed in green (for defense), he lined up on the offensive side of the ball with Tebow and the white-clad guys, made a great grab and turned upfield, juking guys also dressed in green.
It was all very confusing: Was this an interception or a completion? In a way, it didn't matter. Other teams don't have fans that get excited when a defender makes a catch and runs through his own squad. Behind "Tebow," "Cro" was the most shouted name. Fans were actually upset when he didn't join the offensive drills. "Jump in, Cro!" one yelled. "Hey Cro, put on white!" another said.
The offensive line is another issue. Sanchez was sacked 39 times last year – fifth-most leaguewide – and fans rejoiced when Jeff Otah was acquired from Carolina to replace Wayne Hunter at right tackle. Well, Otah failed his physical and guess who's playing against the Giants this weekend? Meanwhile, D'Brickashaw Ferguson, who allowed nearly a quarter of Sanchez's sacks last season, will start. Mangold and Brandon Moore are solid but Matt Slauson is coming off shoulder surgery. Asked Wednesday if he has an elite unit, new offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo said "there's elite talent in the group."
Good luck, Mark.
"Sanchise" has had a productive camp. His teammates praise him lavishly. So does Ryan, calling him "a proven winner" and saying his confidence is "sky high."
But 14 quarterbacks started every game for their teams last year in the NFL. Most of those guys were bomb-throwing stars: Drew Brees, Matthew Stafford, Philip Rivers, Eli Manning. Most of those guys had weapons and protection. Sanchez has little of either. He has earned the starting job, to his credit. But what are the chances he'll remain upright and successful all season with what he's got?
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And when you see the disparity between the Jets' offense and defense, you can't help but imagine the ball in the hands of someone who doesn't take huge risks. Normally, that's a running back. But Tebow is a running back who happens to throw. His dimensions aren't too far away from those of Brandon Jacobs or Peyton Hillis, and those guys (if healthy) would be absolutely perfect in this offense.
"He runs hard," says LaRon Landry, who is new to the Jets but played against Tebow in college. "He's 245? 250? Bigger than a running back. Runs 4.5? Come on. And he'll lower the shoulder. He's looking to run over somebody."
Landry laughs thinking about it.
"He comes out in every pad. Thigh pad, knee pad, butt pad. Haven't seen that in forever."
The Jets will play both Sanchez and Tebow, possibly at the same time on occasion. Many are thinking of the Wildcat formation, yet it can be far more traditional and still work – especially under new offensive coordinator Tony Sparano. But even if it does work, fans will clamor for more of it, which will marginalize Sanchez. (It's already happening, as Tebow should be especially valuable in the red zone, meaning more scoring opportunities.) If it fails, fans will want to see more Tebow alone in the backfield.
The bottom line is this: running is safer than throwing in any offense, and especially in this offense. That's an advantage for Tebow that Sanchez may not be able to overcome, no matter how much he's improved. For all the criticism Tebow gets for his inaccurate passing, he tends to take care of the ball better than a lot of quarterbacks. Sanchez, meanwhile, may throw interceptions that aren't his fault – which is what happened all day Wednesday – but they're still interceptions. He had the fifth-most (18) last season.
Now add the expectations game. Star linebacker Bart Scott says he expects Sanchez "to take the next step and be one of the best 10 quarterbacks in the league." Meanwhile, Tebow gets plaudits when he throws a complete pass. Sanchez, going into his fourth season, is compared to Manning, who won a Super Bowl in his fourth season. Tebow, going into his third season, is compared only to prior versions of Tim Tebow.
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It reeks of Denver all over again, where the Broncos had two good college quarterbacks in Kyle Orton and Brady Quinn, but neither had much to work with, and Tebow manufactured just enough points and drained just enough clock to let the defense do its thing.
"If we lose, it falls on Mark," Darrelle Revis says. "If we win, it falls on Mark."
It fell on Sanchez to win the starting job in camp. Looks like he's done it. Now it falls on Sanchez to lead a team with an anemic offense. If he does that, a ton of respect will fall on Sanchez. If he doesn't, well, his job will probably fall on Tebow.
"Run for your life"? Whoever the Jets quarterback is, expect a lot of that. And it's not hard to figure out whether Sanchez or Tebow is better at it.
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