With Mark Sanchez, the Jets play like there’s nothing to lose

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Sanchez against Houston. (nfl.com)
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Last night’s Jets loss did little to change the perception leading into it that the Jets were irrevocably screwed, not just for this year but until they can find a more capable quarterback.

But at least it was fun. Having bottomed out the week before, thus completing their three-year transition from a swaggering new jack to a risible clown to injury-ravaged pity case, the Jets assumed a new role: That of plucky underdog against the Number 1 team in the land, in a game that had the off-kilter atmosphere and zany plot-twists of a brewing college-football upset.

Jets fans began the night full of bile toward Mark Sanchez and the offense. But as the game wore on, there seemed to be a collective realization that registering disgust with Sanchez and the fact that he’s obviously not The Guy has become passé. The Jets are miles away from being the quasi-Super Bowl contenders they were at their best. Why cling to the idea that they should be, and get angry all over again their myriad shortcomings?

The more entertaining move was to root for an inspired (though deeply flawed) defense, the occasional Tebow scheme and a handful of other damn-the-torpedoes gadgets, plus some special-teams magic pulled out of a hat by that unkempt park bench magician, Mike Westhoff. Finally, after rock bottom, it was football with nothing to lose, football for the fun and the fuck of it.

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But still ... Sanchez.

The concise statistical zinger is that he’s the first quarterback to play four straight games with at least 25 pass attempts and a sub-50 percent completion percentage since a fellow named Stoney Case, with the 1999 Ravens. In his fourth year and well past the point of "growing pains" excuses, the best Sanchez has done is scrape a generous definition of “average.” But now he’s below that, and is playing worse than he ever has.

The eye test, once flattering, isn’t fooling anyone anymore. True, he still makes nice throws that look a lot prettier and star-quarterbackish than those of his MetLife Stadium co-tenant counterpart. And he still looks like he moves around pretty well.

But it’s a mirage. By now, Jets fans have seen enough terrible throws to know that his mechanics are inconsistent by nature, and not in a way that can be ironed out with age and experience. (Obvious example from last night: Sanchez’s blown bomb to a wide-open Antonio Cromartie, who was probably right about being the second-best receiver on the team, and may be the best overall player the Jets have left.)

Similarly, Sanchez's “athleticism” can be more accurately described as the quality he has of looking smooth while moving. But when it comes to the more subtle functional athleticism of sensing and avoiding a pass rush, Sanchez hasn't improved since his rookie year.

There were numerous examples of this last night:

On the Jets’ first drive, on the second play of the game, he walked into a pass rush that led to his arm getting hit, resulting in an incomplete pass.

In the second quarter, he simply didn’t see a clean front-side rush from the Texans’ Brooks Reed, and was crushed for a fumble deep in Jets territory. Only a happenstance recovery by fullback Lex Hilliard kept this from being a catastrophic play.

Late in the game, on a third-down play with the Jets on the verge of field goal range, Sanchez stood for too long before moving up in the pocket as Texans star J.J. Watt swiped at his legs and upended him for a sack that could have been either avoided or forestalled. The Jets were forced to punt on the next play.

Refining his ability to maneuver in the pocket has been a huge factor in Eli Manning’s improvement over the past several years—look at his signature play from last year’s Super Bowl, Manning’s final-drive pass to Mario Manningham, to see this. Other quarterbacks who don’t share Sanchez’s ostensible “athleticism,” including Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, are masters of this craft as well. Sanchez may be a natural athlete, but he’s not a natural quarterback.

There’s also the matter of Sanchez’s four passes that were tipped at the line by Texans’ star defensive end, J.J. Watt. One of these tipped balls resulted in an interception and return that turned a likely Jets touchdown into a Texans field goal before halftime. Another precluded what looked like a sure touchdown early in the fourth quarter, ultimately forcing the Jets to settle for a field goal.

During his post-game press conference, Rex Ryan gamely chalked the tips up to bad luck, saying, “I think his day, minus those tips, obviously it looks a lot better.”

But the fact is that Sanchez has consistently had this problem. According to Pro Football Focus stats, Sanchez was tied for second-most in the NFL with five tipped passes going into yesterday, which means he now has nine. Last year, he was first, with 15. In 2010, he was third, also with 15.

The last tipped pass occurred on the last play of the game, when Watt snuffed out the Jets’ infinity-length long-shot of a lateral-laden 91-yard scoring play. After the play, ESPN’s on-field cameras caught Watt exulting with his teammates, crowing in a high-pitched hinterlands voice, “You can’t try to throw it over my head!”

Moments later, he politely sought out Mark Sanchez for a collegial pound-hug, an obligatory sign of respect for a starting quarterback. It’s a title Sanchez likely won’t hold after this year.