By JIM LITKE
Associated Press columnist
Walking off the field after wrecking the Jets, J.J. Watt said what fans across the New York metropolitan area were thinking.
The Texans’ stellar defensive end wasn’t trying to stoke the quarterback controversy that has been dogging the Jets since March. His play in Monday night’s 23-17 win took care of that. But just moments after tipping Mark Sanchez’s final pass to end New York’s last-gasp attempt at a comeback, the camera caught Watt heading for the locker room and telling a teammate, “You can’t throw it over my head.”
Sanchez couldn’t on this night, and so he and coach Rex Ryan are going to hear about it for another week. There are a handful of good reasons why his backup, Tim Tebow, likely wouldn’t have fared any better, beginning with the absence of the Jets’ top three receivers due to injuries. But no one outside the Jets’ locker room is interested in hearing them.
After the loss dropped New York to 2-3, Ryan was asked to assess Sanchez’s play. He had to know the question was coming.
“You know, at the time … the numbers ..,” he began, pausing to look down at a stat sheet. Ryan reeled off the numbers to buy some time — 14 of 31 for 230 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions — then looked up at the reporters gathered in the room.
“Very similar to the kid we played,” he said, referring to Texans quarterback Matt Schaub. “But he had, unfortunately, two tipped passes for interceptions. I think his day, minus those tips, obviously looks a lot nicer.
“I think he played,” Ryan made one final stab at defending Sanchez, “better than the numbers indicate.”
To be fair, Sanchez did — though not nearly as well as he had in a season-opening win against the Bills. In the four games since, he’s completed less than half his passes and now ranks dead-last among the NFL’s starting quarterbacks in that category. Ryan needed to cite only one stat to argue why now is not the time to swap starters: At the end of last season, Tebow occupied the same slot Sanchez now is in. Ryan didn’t dare, not after the Jets ponied up millions to sign Tebow last spring and then handed Sanchez a $20 million contract extension.
But that’s a mess of their own making.
Asked last week after losing to the 49ers whether all that money might be clouding his decision-making, Ryan barked, “Contract has nothing to do with it,” then added as he walked away from the podium, “Nice question.”
Sanchez has had to deal with doubters since arriving in New York, despite having gone to the conference championship game in his first two seasons. His answers have a practiced feel.
“You’ve got to give yourself a chance to win,” he said, “and we did that tonight.”
Ryan and his staff tried everything to cover up for the Jets’ injuries, their woeful offense and porous run defense — everything but give Tebow a real chance at the helm. Fans began chanting his name right after Sanchez’s first incomplete pass and Tebow turned up behind center on New York’s fifth offensive play of the game, delivering a deep ball that newcomer Jason Hill promptly dropped. On another drive early in the fourth quarter, Tebow appeared again — this time taking a direct snap after Sanchez lined up as a wide receiver — and pin-balled up the middle for 13 yards to set up a first-and-goal from the 3. A similar call on the next play resulted in Tebow being stopped for no gain.
Instead of taking another shot — or two — with Tebow in the short-yardage situation that was his hallmark as a college QB, Sanchez returned, only to have Watt swat his next pass away. Another incompletion followed and the Jets settled for a field goal. If Tebow was as exasperated with the play-calling as the MetLife Stadium crowd, he wasn’t about to let on.
“I had no idea when I would go in,” he said. For the record, he made one throw and had five carries; Tebow never played more than two consecutive downs. “I just try to be ready at all times.”
For the rest of the week, his time would be well-spent getting ready for another round of questions about whether he’ll ever get a real shot at the starting job. A few were lobbed in Tebow’s direction right after the loss, when reporters reminded him how many times he used the word “excited” at his introductory news conference seven months ago, and whether he still felt the same now.
“Yeah, I’m still excited to be a Jet,” Tebow said. “But do I have to say it like 50 times, though?”
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.