Mark Sanchez and the Jets' quest for offensive averageness

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Mark Sanchez directs the Jets offense. (NewYorkJets.com)
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The high point of the Jets' dismal 17-12 loss to the Carolina Panthers last night came halfway through the fourth quarter, courtesy of Tim Tebow.

On a 3rd-and-16, Tebow was flushed from the pocket but made some zig-zaggy elusive moves before charging upfield and crashing past the first-down marker. He exulted muscularly and infectiously, and whatever fraction was left of the crowd broke into a “Te-Bow! Te-Bow!” chant.

Several plays later, Tebow threw a ghastly interception. Two more fruitless Jets drives came and went, and the Great Touchdownless Stretch of August 2012 stood at 35 drives by game’s end. The Tebow-led offense got booed off the field, just as the Sanchez-led offense had been booed off at halftime.

It's hard to say how big a deal this is because it's nearly unprecedented. The NBC crew of Cris Collinsworth and Al Michaels began the game invoking one of those high-powered Chiefs offenses in the early 2000s, the last team to be held touchdownless through two preseason games. They ended the night by invoking the 1977 Falcons, who didn’t hit paydirt in their first three preseason games and wound up with the league’s fourth-worst offense.

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Sanchez didn’t seem particularly concerned about it during a late-game sideline interview, frustrating NBC’s Michelle Tafoya, who seemed intent on treating the Jets’ poor offensive preseason with the same life-or-death urgency as every Jets storyline.

The Jets will play again Thursday in a final, meaningless game even by preseason standards, thus concluding an eventful and exhausting offseason. Only in Jets-land does the start of the season bring a measure of relief: Let the noise end, and please, at long last, let the games begin.

OF GREATER CONCERN TO THE JETS AFTER LAST night was the devastation of the tight end depth chart. Dustin Keller sustained one of those hamstring injuries where it looked like a Doberman jumped up and bit him. He boldly proclaimed he’d be ready for Week 1 thirteen days from now, but that hinges on further testing today.

His backup is Jeff Cumberland, who sat out last night’s game with a concussion and has all of three career receptions to his name. Josh Baker, another tight end, sustained a gruesome knee injury last night and was waived today. Even Dedrick Epps, the fourth man on the depth chart, left last night’s game with an injury.

COLLINSWORTH MIGHT HAVE BEEN A BIT PREMATURE IN DECLARING, “This right tackle thing is solved.”

Austin Howard deserves credit for playing well last night, but Wayne Hunter put together a stretch last year in which he played very well too. Howard is still an undrafted free agent who’s been let go by two teams in the two years he’s been in the league. He won’t be the unmitigated disaster Hunter was for much of last year and the preseason, but it’s too early to conclude that he won’t be a liability.

It’s also too early to conclude that the Jets offensive line will stay healthy, and that Hunter, Rex Ryan’s “sixth man,” won’t wind up playing a key role after all. That would be the ultimate redemption narrative.

QUIETLY, SANCHEZ HAS LOOKED PRETTY GOOD this preseason. His numbers weren’t good last night (7 for 14 for 90 yards and interception) but those numbers change significantly if you discount the four drops the Jets had, including Stephen Hill’s chestplate clang that directly led to the interception.

In last week’s game, he went 9 for 11 for 59 yards despite staring down an avalanche of Giants pass rushers more often than not.

Amid all the Jets noise, it’s easy forget that the biggest question surrounding them is whether Sanchez can evolve from a below-average quarterback into an average one, and maybe more than that. The signs have been encouraging so far.

IF SANCHEZ AND THE OFFENSE CAN ATTAIN MERE AVERAGENESS, the Jets should be very good, because the defense should be great.

I covered this in an earlier column, but the Jets’ defense was just fine last year: The misleading stat that “they” allowed the 13th-most points in the league was mostly a function of an offense that actually allowed many of those points and continuously put the defense on the field because they couldn’t string together first downs. In realty, the Jets ranked 6th best in points per drive and 2nd in Football Outsiders’ play-by-play DVOA ratings.

The first-unit defense looked outstanding last night, limiting the Panthers to 124 yards. The touchdown they allowed brought back memories of last year in that it was more the fault of the offense, whose turnover gave the Panthers possession at the Jets’ 31.

Particularly impressive were Kenrick Ellis, who played with the mammoth strength Jets fans have been hearing about for the past two years, and LaRon Landry, who clearly relishes the task of throwing his ample upper body into opponents.

Quinton Coples made some plays early on: He got pressure on quarterback Cam Newtown twice on the Panthers’ first drive. Later, he forced a fumble on Newton by punching the ball out of his hands, showing Osi Umenyiora-esque hand-eye coordination and giving credence to the Jets pronouncements after the draft that the guy is an awesome athlete. Still, his night ended with pointed comments from Rex Ryan, who said he bellyached about being left in for the whole game.

Inconsistent effort had been one of the knocks on Coples coming out of college. Strike one.

MUHAMMAD WILKERSON DID A PRETTY MEAN THING last night. With Newton on the ground a couple of beats after being tackled, Wilkerson came in with a swinging elbow to the head (which missed), and then came back with a forearm across Newton’s neck. It wasn’t called by the replacement refs.

Collinsworth, who is easily the most vocal supporter among announcers of the N.F.L.’s crackdown on blows to the head, treated it pretty casually.

“A forearm across the skull, back across, here I am, I’ll be back to see you soon, welcome to the N.F.L.,” he said.