CORTLAND, N.Y. – At one point in 7-on-7 drills Wednesday morning, Kellen Clemens let go of an ill-advised floater. The pass was too long and tipped into the air, eventually landing in the hands of a waiting defender. A buzz descended along the sideline. The compass in the New York Jets' quarterback battle was adjusted accordingly, and the balance had seemingly shifted.
Those looking for early clarity in this competition have surely been sorely disappointed. If anything, it's less clear now than it was before training camp, when at the very least you could assume that time and financial prudence would make Mark Sanchez the chosen one. But Jets practices have been marked by inconsistency with both Clemens and Sanchez, and the coaching staff didn't appear to be moved one way or another through Wednesday.
What is known? Sanchez has flashes of good play and has been loose in the face of expectations. Clemens has a superior grasp of the system and has been more decisive at times. On the flip side, neither has been remarkably consistent, with Sanchez prone to strings of incompletions and Clemens subject to throwing the frequent interception in 7-on-7 or 11-on-11 drills.
And yet, there is something intriguing in the fog of uncertainty – because the talent beyond these two struggling quarterbacks appears to be solidifying. The Jets' defense has quickly adapted head coach Rex Ryan's scheme (and cockiness) and could boast one of the best secondaries in the NFL. While the passing game will hang on the effectiveness of the quarterback chosen, the offense should have a solid running game, paved by Pro Bowlers Alan Faneca(notes) and Nick Mangold(notes) at guard and center, and rising tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson(notes).
All of which makes Clemens vs. Sanchez a potentially landscape-changing decision. Indeed, this is not a franchise in the throes of a painful 12-step rebuilding program. Instead, it looks like a roster dotted with Pro Bowlers which could factor into the AFC playoff race – if the quarterback spot doesn't undermine it.
"Look at it – this team is ready to win now," linebacker Bart Scott(notes) said. "This is not a team that is in transition. We're not a Cleveland or a Kansas City. There is a lot of talent out here, and [the starting quarterback] has got to give these guys a chance to get to the playoffs."
And that may just be the deciding factor. In spite of the money and marketability and promised future of Sanchez, Clemens' grasp of the Jets' offensive system might be the trump card that wins him the job. Certainly, there is a long way to go in the decision-making process, and Ryan continues to frame the competition as one with no clear leader. But veterans appear to be leaning toward Clemens early, largely because he has the ability to get the pieces of the offense in the right place. If it weren't for his propensity to turn the ball over in drills, he might already be the clear favorite.
"He's smart – he puts us in the right plays and gets us in the right situation before the play even starts most of the time," guard Alan Faneca said. "That's a huge plus right there. He's got the tools [to start].
Added Scott: "I think Kellen is a little bit ahead of Mark, strictly because of his familiarity within the offense. What you have to be able to do as a quarterback, especially with young receivers, is be able to line them up and then correct them on the fly. Sometimes when you're young like Mark, all you do is think about doing your job first."
Those may not be words the Jets fan base wants to hear, particularly after seeing Clemens fail to lock down the starting job when he had his opportunity with eight starts in 2007. Years of frustration with Chad Pennington(notes) and the failed Brett Favre(notes) experiment last season pushed the franchise into trading up to draft Sanchez with the fifth overall pick in April's draft. A few months later, there seems to be a palpable anxiety about putting off his succession to the starter's role.
But Ryan said he's not moved by that sentiment – not by the media, which has gushed about Sanchez for months, and not by a red-faced fan base likely to chafe with Sanchez relegated to the bench. While the front office is on the Sanchez bandwagon, too, it's Ryan who has the depth of knowledge with rookie quarterbacks. As much as everyone wants to point to Joe Flacco's(notes) success last season, Ryan was around for Kyle Boller(notes), too. He saw a rookie who was handed a starting job too early and never truly recovered.
The staff would like to have a firm grasp on the starter by August 29, when the Jets face the Giants in their third preseason game. With their practice performances so inconsistent from day to day, that will put a heavy emphasis on Thursday's full-squad scrimmage – which will include hitting – and the first two preseason games. While Sanchez has only gradually been given reps with the first-team offense, both he and Clemens are expected to take snaps with the No. 1 unit in preseason games.
"When the lights come on in those [preseason] games, it changes things," Scott said. "It's easy to do things when you've got a red jersey on because you don't have to worry about getting hit. When it's live bullets and that clock is going faster, it's different. We'll find out a lot then."
Sanchez talked about "moving the chains and knowing the situation" in Thursday's scrimmage, while Clemens said his first priority will be "all about completions and making good decisions."
"[The scrimmage] is a good chance for everybody to do a little evaluation of where they are at," Clemens said.
And it might be the first real indication of where this quarterback battle – and perhaps this entire team – is headed in 2009. Thus far, the position has wandered with no clear map. With games fast approaching, the franchise can only hope a revelation at the position isn't far off.
"With the preseason games, we'll have a good feel of who is our guy," Ryan said. "Obviously, you want to make that decision as fast as you can so that he gets all of the work with the first group. But we're not there yet."