The Ryan-Sanchez Express Has the Jets Riding High

The Jets are riding this playoff push on a wing and a prayer.  The right wing of turbulent and resilient rookie QB Mark Sanchez. And the prayers and preaching of head coach Rex Ryan, who needs the blessings of the football Gods to do the improbable these playoffs.

Oh. Don’t forget the mouth of The Jets boisterous, blunt and vocal coach, who after sneaking into the playoffs at 9-7, declared his wild-card Jets should be favored to win it all. Despite the roller coaster season, the Jets seem to be gelling at the right time. And their prayers are being answered.

Jets owner Woody Johnson, though deeply saddened by the sudden death of his daughter, couldn’t be happier about the progression of his rookie coach and rookie QB.

Johnson made it clear he wanted to inject some energy, excitement, confidence into a Jets franchise that had become vanilla, pedestrian and evasive to the media under the emotionless Eric Mangini.

By hiring two novices to lead his organization, Johnson also hoped for some back page burn in the local newspapers. NFL coverage in NY has been a Giants-fest the past decade. He also needed to mask the ridiculously priced tickets and PSL’s with a new enthusiasm about a new Jets team, with new leadership and moving in a new direction. Up.

Thanks to Johnson’s two main off season imports — the great pontificator and rebel rouser Ryan, and swagalicious, pretty-boy Sanchez, who seems as built for Broadway as any Jets QB since Joe Namath — the Jets are the only team getting headlines right now. Sanchez is slowly quieting his naysayers and looking like a future stud.

The comparisons to Namath, which seemed premature during the season, don’t seem as farfetched now. And we know what Namath did for NY. He single-handedly helped make pro football in NY a huge deal, by brashly guaranteeing and then pulling off one of the greatest upsets in history, leading his underdog AFL Jets to a victory over what everyone felt was a superior and unbeatable Colts team, led by the greatest pure passer in NFL history, Johnny Unitas.

Sanchez already came packaged with the superstar looks and attitude. The dark hair. The height. The million dollar smile. The fearless play. His confidence and the way you can obviously see the team believes in him, contributes to his burgeoning reputation as well.

Sanchez and Ryan are equal factors in the Jets surprising playoff run. The similarities between the two are obvious, and each man’s legacy will largely depend on the success of the other. Sanchez has had an up and down season. So has Ryan. Sanchez was drafted after just one season as a starter at USC. Rex, the son of Buddy, a former NFL coach and great defensive coordinator credited with inventing the vaunted 46 defense, never had a head coaching job before the Jets made him top dog.

Both came out the shoot this season like gangbusters, going 3-0 and showing veteran –like savvy. That was the worst possible thing that could have happened to them. The fans got spoiled. Then the Jets predictably hit the rough patch of the schedule, losing three in a row, culminated by Sanchez throwing five picks in an OT loss to Buffalo.

At the same time, Ryan seemed to be losing his team, even breaking down and crying in a press conference. All of a sudden the magic they seemed to have was fizzling. The reality of having a rookie head coach and quarterback was settling in. Sanchez got an early and first-hand view of the pressure and finicky attitudes of NY sports followers. The fans and media began screaming for backup Kellen Clemens to save the season. Ryan even took a shot at Sanchez, blasting him in the media for not being smart and playing recklessly. The coaching staff lost faith in the rooks decision-making as the season and interceptions progressed, and cut half of his playbook Ryan, who rarely holds his tongue, went so far as to concede any chance at the playoffs after a disheartening 10-7 loss to Atlanta dropped the team under .500 [6-7].  I’m sure the absence of leading offensive weapon Leon Johnson didn’t exactly add to Ryan’s confidence that his team could turn it around.

But just as it seemed the first year of the Ryan-Sanchez experience would end with more question marks than answers, the Jets won their last three games and made the postseason. What was supposed to be a symbolic playoff appearance and a step in the right direction for a new Jets team, has become much more after upsetting the Cincinnati Bengals in the wild-card game.  Now the Jets are showing more similarities to that 1969 team, than the choke artists they had been the last two decades.

The Jets boast the league’s No. 1 defense and rushing attack. While they may have been able to get away with limiting Sanchez’s touches during the season, for the Jets to go deeper in these playoffs, Sanchez’s arm will be the key. Sanchez has the tools to throw downfield, avoid defenders and create big plays.

I always had confidence that given a chance Sanchez could reign in his mistakes and make positive contributions throwing the ball. The Jets are not going to beat teams like the Colts and Chargers just running the ball. Sanchez, as he did last week in Cincy will have to throw. Throw deep. Throw accurate. And hopefully throw his team into The AFC Championship Game and possibly even…should I say it?  The Jets first Super Bowl appearance in over 40 years. Most veteran observers of football give the Jets no shot. Ryan and Sanchez think they can go all the way. What do they know any way? They are just rookies, living on a wing and a prayer.

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