By DENNIS WASZAK Jr.
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Mark Sanchez is still the New York Jets’ franchise quarterback despite being mired in one of the worst slumps of his career.
Tim Tebow, however, is still the team’s most talked-about quarterback.
Yep, the backup has been the center of attention most of this week for a team struggling to stay competitive during a season on the verge of slipping away. Anonymous players were quoted earlier in the week in media reports criticizing Tebow’s abilities at the quarterback position, which is preventing the Jets from pulling Sanchez.
In a strange way, it has taken some of the heat off Sanchez, who still has a firm hold on the starting job.
“I don’t think it’s like a backhanded compliment or anything like that,” he said Wednesday. “Guys know that I’m working hard, trying to fix my mistakes and that we’re all in this thing together. Guys are taking responsibility and now we just need to fix our mistakes, and it’s not one person. It’s multiple things that have kind of built up and really hurt us as a team.”
New York coach Rex Ryan remains committed to Sanchez as his team’s leader — while Tebow is still just a part-time contributor who many think should be given a chance at rescuing the Jets’ season. Owner Woody Johnson also backed Sanchez on Thursday when he was asked during practice if he still views Sanchez as the franchise quarterback.
“He is our franchise quarterback,” Johnson said. “I don’t ‘view’ him that way — that’s what he is.”
That support comes even as Sanchez is ranked near the bottom of the NFL in several passing categories. In the Jets’ last three games, all losses, Sanchez has thrown two touchdown passes and three interceptions, lost three fumbles and been sacked 11 times.
There have been a handful of questionable decisions, too, such as in last week’s 28-7 loss at Seattle when he tried to force a pass to Dustin Keller in the end zone that was intercepted — while a wide-open Stephen Hill was jumping up and down trying to get the quarterback’s attention.
“We’ve been in some close games and this last one slipped away and it really snowballed,” Sanchez said. “Who knows if we convert on a fourth-and-1? Who knows if I don’t throw a pick on the goal line? We’re right there and some of these decisions or results of plays, poorly executed plays, they turn it for the worse and they happen consecutively. Then the score ends up what it is. You eliminate a couple of those mistakes early, who knows?”
That’s what has the Jets and their fans so frustrated this season. There have been moments in which the offense has played well under new coordinator Tony Sparano, namely the Jets’ 48-28 season-opening victory over Buffalo and their 35-9 win against Indianapolis a few weeks ago. But the stretches of ineptitude have been far too common for the Jets (3-6), who will play the Rams (3-5-1) and former offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer in St. Louis on Sunday.
“Am I frustrated? No,” Sparano said Thursday. “Do I want us to do better? Yes.”
And most of the finger-pointing has gone in Sanchez’s direction, with expectations that he should be able, in his fourth season, to raise his game in the most dire of situations — which this is starting to become for New York. Ryan has repeatedly said that Sanchez “gives us the best chance to win,” and with the season on the brink, the quarterback will head to St. Louis knowing it’s a must-win situation for his team.
A loss, and the Jets fall to 3-7 and likely out of the playoff picture with six games to go. That would mean after consecutive trips to the AFC championship game in his first two seasons, Sanchez and his teammates would be sitting home for two straight postseasons.
“I’m just fighting for this week,” Sanchez said when asked if he needs to play well to keep his job. “I’m just fighting to win this week.”
Sanchez has not complained publicly about how he lost his top receiver in Santonio Holmes to a foot injury earlier this season, was without Keller for a month because of a hamstring issue, has had inconsistent protection from his offensive line or how the running game has been mostly grounded by a lack of production.
Instead, Sanchez has shouldered the blame while trying to stay optimistic — even if it appears at times to be unrealistic.
“We have weapons,” Sanchez insisted. “We have guys who can play. We know how to do it right and now it’s a matter of executing.”
Both Sanchez and Tebow have sidestepped questions about whether how they’re used affects how they perform, in that switching quarterbacks throughout games might make it difficult for one to establish a rhythm. After Sanchez threw a 32-yard pass to Keller in the fourth quarter Sunday to give the Jets a first down, Sparano put Tebow in the game — because, as Ryan explained, the Seahawks showed a certain look on defense.
Well, the look by Sanchez said it all as he appeared frustrated on the sideline, shrugging his shoulders and throwing his arms in the air. Tebow then threw an incomplete pass to Jeremy Kerley.
“I’ve had that question asked to me a bunch of times, different ways,” a testy Sparano said when asked about maintaining the quarterback’s rhythm. “How would I answer it? I would answer by saying that I don’t see it that way necessarily. You people are the people that have sat in this room and asked me when Tim Tebow is going to play more. That question was asked for about the last six weeks: ‘How much? When are we going to see more of him?’ So you can’t really ask me that question and then ask me the one that you just asked. It doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense.”
Sparano went on to say that it’s “just a feel thing,” and he determines when he’ll put Tebow in — and take Sanchez out — based on what he’s seeing from the opponent.
“It gives me an opportunity to use it like it’s a timeout for Mark,” Sparano said. “In other words, get him on the sideline and talk to him a little bit and then get him going. As Rex said the other day, in the ballgame the other day, we really weren’t in a great rhythm, so that gave me an opportunity to be able to talk to him a little bit in between some of those plays, which was helpful, too. … Sometimes it’s going to be two or three plays, and sometimes it’s going to be maybe 15.”
But for now, Sanchez will remain on the field for the bulk of the game as the unquestioned starter while Tebow waits for any opportunities he gets.
“There have been some good things and obviously some things that I would have liked to do better,” Tebow said of his limited chances. “I’d like to be able to do some better things with my role, try to expand that. The most frustrating thing is losing football games as a team. Not individually, but together as a team. You go out there and you play to win football games. We have to do a better job of coming together to try to win those games.”