Greg McElroy and the making of a quarterback catharsis

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Greg McElroy. (nfl.com)
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To say that Greg McElroy “energized” the fans and the team yesterday is a polite way of describing the catharsis of finally purging Mark Sanchez.

Whether Sanchez will start next week doesn’t really matter. The point is that the repeated vows of confidence in Sanchez from the front office and Rex Ryan no longer apply. He won’t be the Jets’ starting quarterback next year.

Forty minutes in, yesterday’s game was shaping up as the single most dismal of the season, which is saying something. We were beyond the slapstick of the New England Thanksgiving game. What was left was the desultory business of playing out the string as a lousy team, and of watching Mark Sanchez complete his season-long walk of the plank.

McElroy’s entrance prompted perhaps the loudest, most passionate ovation of the year. Surprisingly and strangely, the last 20 minutes of the game were riveting, if not well-played.

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After all, the benching of Sanchez killed off what remained of the idea that Jets are a contender. For fans, it also signaled an end to a certain kind of agonizing over the many ways the team fell short those expectations. Rock bottom is liberating that way; it means the end of sinking.

Just before the benching, the Jets offense went three and out, finishing on yet another Sanchez tipped pass.

Cut to the stands, and there’s a middle-aged man in a LaDainian Tomlinson jersey giving a lustily sarcastic standing ovation, a protective laugh-to-keep-from-crying gesture if there ever was one. A twenty-something in a ski hat cups his hand over his mouth and unleashes a desperate “You suck!,” one of tens of thousands this year.

Then the money shot: A man in a Jets-helmet radio contraption resting his face wanly in his hand, which itself is positioned with an upturned middle finger.

Intentional? Subconscious? Considering the level of hostility among Jets fans toward their team, immortalized in that YouTube video of insult-spewing posted on Deadspin last week, one can never tell. The discontent in Jets nation carries all the disappointment of having wasted four (or the last two, at least) years on Sanchez. The longer the relationship, the deeper the bitterness of the breakup.

Still, like all breakups, the anger and relief is mixed with sadness. Who couldn’t feel sorry for Sanchez during those clips of him on the sideline?

There was the one where he asked for an earpiece, showing a Good Soldier embrace of what is likely his new role. There was his reaction to McElroy’s touchdown, when he raised his arms obligatory and muttered, “Nice job, Greg."

Most poignant of all was the shot of his reconfirming the news of his benching with Rex Ryan. Tony Sparano had already given him the news, but, he told reporters afterward, “I wanted to hear it from [Rex].”

McELROY'S ENTRANCE WAS MET WITH AN ANACHRONISTIC SPEECH from CBS analyst and former Ravens coach Brian Billick: “Benching Sanchez sends a statement that this isn’t ‘your guy.' Maybe he’ll come back and be your guy next week. But this isn’t the guy that you’re betting the franchise on going down the way.”

It was an awkward resuscitation of the idea that Sanchez could be redeemed through careful stewardship of his mental state.  

For his first two years, the Jets put training wheels on him and limited his responsibilities. Last year they liberated him to open things up, to make it his offense. It didn’t work, so this year they brought in Tebow to light a fire under his ass.

We know now it doesn’t matter. Tinkering with Sachez's psyche is a fool’s errand. It's not a question of confidence or "heart." The guy's simply not good enough.

Billick’s words were spoken from the skewed perspective of someone who won a Super Bowl with Trent Dilfer as his quarterback, and who consequently sees that as a replicable model and not a once-in-46-year fluke.

By now, all the Jets could hope for from Sanchez is that he returns from this year’s atrociousness to the semi-adequacy of his first two years. In other words, to become Trent Dilfer. That's not really a plan, and the Jets have finally, irrefutably, admitted it.

AFTER THE QUARTERBACK CHANGE, BILAL POWELL ripped off some nice runs on one drive, Shonn Greene did so on another, and McElroy did some endearing things: He gamely initiated contact with a defender out of bounds, thus drawing a 15-yard-penalty on that defender that moved the Jets closer to their first score. After his 1-yard touchdown pass, he broke into the “Flight Boy” celebration, harking back to those distant-seeming days when the Jets were ascendant and defined by their hamminess.

It was a nice little showing for McElroy, with the emphasis on "little."  Despite completing 5 of his 7 passes in leading the Jets to an eventual 7-6 win, McElroy averaged only 4.1 yards per pass attempt, which was actually lower than Sanchez’s 4.6. When asked afterward what impressed him most about McElroy, Rex Ryan complimented his clock management.

In other words, McElroy did what he needed to do, conducting one touchdown drive and another drive that would have ended in a touchdown if Shonn Greene didn't deliberately take a knee to allow the clock to expire. It was decent, but it’s not like the guy came in and tore it up.

McElroy was a seventh-round draft pick for a reason. The pros on his scouting report are his intelligence and steadiness. The cons are his long release and a popgun arm. When he was drafted, the consensus was that he was capable backup material, but not a budding N.F.L. starter.

Still, Rex is a guy who sees the best in his players and isn’t afraid to tell people what he sees. In his postseason press conference, he said of McElroy, “I never knew that a guy could improve his arm strength during an offseason the way Greg did. So right now, you know, I feel comfortable with Greg.”

But he later tempered this stance, couching his comments in the guise of Rex being Rex, the guy who praises and pumps up everyone.

When asked for the sixth-or-so time who will start this coming Sunday, he said, “I mean, hey, I believe in Mark, I believe in Greg. I believe in everybody we have, so, um, that’s my statement.”