Despite some typical early growing pains, the New York Jets have been very lucky to have had second-year quarterback Mark Sanchez leading their offense.
Sanchez came through as a rookie during a surprising playoff run that had the Jets 28 minutes from Super Bowl XLIV in last year’s AFC title game in Indianapolis.
This year, overcoming some struggles earlier in games, Sanchez repeatedly helped the Jets pull out several dramatic wins in the final moments, helping New York to a 9-2 record.
But after a 45-3 defeat in what was supposed to be a first-place showdown in New England, and a disappointing, rain-soaked, 10-6 loss to division rival Miami (7-6), Jets’ head coach Rex Ryan may not be feeling so lucky to have Sanchez and his signal caller anymore.
Prior to the Jets’ meeting with the Dolphins at the New Meadowlands Stadium on Sunday, Ryan said “I think (the New England) loss was just a bump in the road. We’ll respond really well and we’ll know a lot about our team after these next four weeks.”
That “bump” just became a pretty big hill to climb as Ryan considered benching Sanchez during the third quarter of the Jets’ fourth single-digit offensive output (all losses) of the season.
The Jets’ offense has operated in extremes this year.
With Sanchez and the Jets’ offense clicking, New York (9-4) scored between 23 and 38 points, averaging 27.2 points per game, in their nine wins this season.
The Jets needed Sanchez and the offense to step up and bail out a defense that hasn’t been nearly as dominant as it was last year, when it was the top-ranked defense in the NFL.
In those nine victories, the Jets allowed 20 or more points six times.
The losses however, have been a completely different story, and that seems to have gotten to Ryan after the Jets’ first multiple-game losing streak of the season.
In three of the Jets’ four losses, New York’s defense did look like last year’s version, allowing just 10 points twice and nine points once, but Sanchez and the Jets’ offense was shut out once and never scored more than nine points in any of their four losses.
It’s now been more than nine quarters and over 139 minutes since the Jets last scored an offensive touchdown in the third quarter of a home win against Cincinnati on Thanksgiving night.
Sunday’s inaccurate and mistake-prone performance by Sanchez, affected by a steady rain throughout most of the game, was enough to prevent the Jets from beating the Dolphins even though New York held Miami to just five completed passes, 55 yards passing, and 131 total yards of offense.
It was the second time in as many seasons that Miami – which used two kickoff returns of at least 100 yards and a fumble return for a touchdown last year – beat the Jets on the road while being held to a little more than 100 yards of total offense (Miami beat New York 30-25 at Giants Stadium last November, while gaining just 104 total yards).
On Sunday, the Dolphins took a 10-0 first-quarter lead off of two Sanchez turnovers.
On the Jets’ second possession of the game, Miami converted a Sanchez interception into a 47-yard field goal. Sanchez then fumbled the next time the Jets had the ball, and Miami turned that break into the game’s only touchdown, a 6-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Chad Henne to wide receiver Brandon Marshall.
That would prove to be all the Dolphins would need, with Sanchez and the Jets’ offense sputtering for most of the game.
New York managed only 280 yards of offense themselves, while managing only a field goal in the second quarter and another in the fourth, in fifteen possessions. In addition to committing a couple of turnovers, the Jets punted eight times and turned the ball over on downs three times.
Sanchez finished the game just 17 of 44 for 216 yards, while being sacked six times.
Forty year-old quarterback Mark Brunell, who once enjoyed a successful NFL career for several years with Jacksonville before later having a sixth 3,000-yard passing season with Washington in 2005, doesn’t appear to be a better choice over Sanchez, having thrown just 31 total passes since the 2006 season.
But, that might just be how much Ryan’s level of faith has quickly diminished in his young first-string quarterback.
It would appear that it might not get any easier for Sanchez and the Jets next week, as New York travels to face a tough defense in AFC North-leading Pittsburgh (10-3), the AFC’s only team to allow less than 200 points (15.9 per game) this season.
The Steelers, winners of four straight, mostly shut down the run, however. Against the pass, Pittsburgh ranked 23rd, allowing 239.3 passing yards per game, entering this weekend. So, there may be some opportunities for Sanchez to once again prove to Ryan that he needs to stay on the field to help the Jets return to their earlier winning form.
In addition to writing for New York Sports Day, Jon Wagner contributes at Pro Football NYC (www.profootballnyc.com) and Giants Football Blog (www.giantsfootballblog.com).