Coach Rex Ryan, who has backed Mark Sanchez, is out of reasons after the Jets’ loss.
His performance in the Jets’ 14-10 loss to Tennessee that knocked them out of playoff contention — five turnovers, including three in the final 7 minutes 26 seconds — was, given the stakes, the most discouraging of his career.
It invalidated Coach Rex Ryan’s stubborn support of him — admirable on one level, foolish on so many others — and created a situation so untenable that even the Jets came to realize their folly. Perhaps realizing that their fans — at least those who show up to MetLife Stadium on Sunday — might revolt if Sanchez started against equally feeble San Diego, the Jets opted on Tuesday to demote him in favor of Greg McElroy.
Over the last month, Sanchez has gone from the Jets’ quarterback of the future, as deemed by the owner Woody Johnson, to not even that of the present. Might he be soon of the past?
In any other circumstance, the answer would almost certainly be yes. His regression — 50 turnovers since the beginning of 2011, the most among N.F.L. quarterbacks, including 24 this season — would warrant as much. But complicating matters is his prohibitive contract, which raises a somewhat rhetorical question: for a player making as much money as Sanchez — a guaranteed $8.25 million in 2013 — how poorly must he play to be released?
In practical terms, the Jets have little financial incentive to cut him. Because there are no offset guarantees in Sanchez’s contract that would defray the cost if he signed with another team, the Jets would be responsible for the entire sum.
Andrew Brandt, who spent 10 seasons negotiating contracts and handling the salary cap for the Green Bay Packers and is now an N.F.L. business analyst for ESPN, said the Jets’ only passable exit strategy would be to trade Sanchez, provided they could find a willing partner, who would then take on his salary.
Brandt suggested that the Jets could theoretically convert a portion of Sanchez’s 2013 salary to a bonus, which, he said, would make it more palatable for a potential deal.
“It’s a lot of money to sink in a player at any position, and it has to be couched with the understanding that he’s our starter,” said Brandt, who was referring to the new contract Sanchez signed in March that guaranteed him $20.5 million in 2012 and 2013. “If they shift course now, obviously they have to have an alternative. They have to talk about sunk costs and whether ownership’s willing to move on.”
Consider Seattle an example. The Seahawks paid Matt Flynn $10 million this off-season, but are reaping the benefits of relegating him to being Russell Wilson’s backup. It remains much more likely that Sanchez stays with the Jets for another season, backing up an established and reliable player — or, at least one with promise — or competing with a credible veteran for the starting job.
It is obvious now that the Jets misjudged their projections of Sanchez. They hoped he would be productive through 2016. He did not even last through 2012.
For a time Tuesday afternoon, the most popular trending topic nationwide on Twitter was QBsBetterThanSanchez. Among those mentioned: Bubba Watson, the golfer; Burt Reynolds, who played a quarterback in “The Longest Yard;” and the boy featured in an N.F.L. Play 60 commercial who tells Cam Newton of Carolina that he “will make Panthers fans forget about you.”
None of them are viable replacements for Sanchez. In the long term, neither is McElroy or Tim Tebow, who will be served best next season playing for an organization that is able to maximize his talents. A meager free-agent quarterback group will benefit if Alex Smith and Michael Vick are made available, and the draft class is considered far weaker than last year’s.
Charley Casserly, a former general manager of the Washington Redskins and the Houston Texans, said on NFL Network on Tuesday that there was “no question about it” when asked whether he could envision a situation in which Sanchez did not play for the Jets.
“Could Sanchez be on the roster, be making that money and not be the starter?” Casserly said. “That could be a possibility, too. Maybe you cut Sanchez later after you find out what you have in training camp. Your options have to be open because you don’t have one on the roster right now.”
In a recent interview, Casserly suggested that surrounding Sanchez with better talent and, perhaps, different coaches could result in improvement. One option, then, would be to overhaul the Jets’ offensive staff, dismissing the first-year coordinator Tony Sparano and the quarterbacks coach, Matt Cavanaugh, in favor of coaches who could reshape the Jets’ passing game. However the Jets choose to spin it, Sanchez’s development has stagnated, and he has continued to make the sort of bewildering mistakes he made as a rookie.
“It’s nerve-racking, trust me, it’s nerve-racking,” said linebacker Calvin Pace, referring to the pressure heaped on the Jets’ defense by their foundering offense. “And it’s frustrating at times.”
Pace went on to say how that dichotomy has existed since he joined the Jets, before the 2008 season, but he realized later that he had misspoken. In 2008, Brett Favre — “that old gunslinger,” Pace said — started for the Jets, who averaged more points a game that year (25.3) than they have since.
“Since Rex has been here,” Pace said, referring to the 2009 season.
And since Sanchez arrived, too. Pace nodded.
“Since Sanchez has been here,” he said.