A football tragedy in five acts, starring Mark Sanchez

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Mark Sanchez directs the Jets offense. (NewYorkJets.com)
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Act I, Second Quarter, 4:03

It’s a play-action rollout, and Sanchez is on the move. He looks good when he rolls out—it’s that “athleticism” that made him the fifth overall pick way back when. Jets fans feel better when he rolls out than when he sits in the pocket: He likely won’t get sacked and fumble this way. Also, there are fewer reads, and consequently less of a chance that one of those pesky safeties will materialize in front of his passes.

Jeremy Kerley runs a comeback route along the sideline, but Titans safety Jason McCourty’s coverage is tight, and McCourty comes back to Sanchez quicker than Kerley. Interception.

Sanchez is caught by ESPN cameras with his face in an annoyed grimace and his palm upturned, likely irritated at Kerley’s lack of urgency in getting to the ball.

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“What the fuck is that?” it looks like he says to offensive coordinator Tony Sparano.

Sanchez needs to play the blame game to justify his existence. The flimsy case for his being anything other than a franchise-killing disaster is predicated on the fact that his receivers might be worse than he is. Kerley, actually, has been the lone bright spot. But last night, Sanchez’s other prominent wideouts were scrap-heap signings Braylon Edwards and Mardy Gilyard—guys who have been on the team for six days and three weeks, respectively.

Clyde Gates, who Rex Ryan has spoken glowingly of at times this season as a defense-stretching speedster, was targeted once. Chaz Schilens was nowhere to be found last night either: He’s the guy who Mike Tannenbaum said this past offseason “could catch 100 balls… or he could be a special teamer,” depending on the Jets’ need for him, such was their embarrassment of riches at wide receiver.

The inadequacy of the Jets wide receivers since Santonio Holmes’ season-ending injury is further underscored by the fact that Stephen Hill, who missed last night’s game with a knee injury, amassed 20 fewer yards in his 11 games than Holmes did in four games. So yes, Sanchez is having a terrible season for the ages. But this receiving corps is also historically bad. That Edwards and Gilyard are playing over guys who went through training camp speaks volumes about the Jets’ entire operation, from scouting to coaching.

ESPN replayed the interception: McCourty’s foot was shown on a strip of off-white grass, which looked to all the world like the sideline, but was demarcated as in-bounds by a brighter white line. It’s late in the season and the field in Tennessee, like the Jets receiving corps, is patchwork. Somehow this sloppy groundskeeping touch underscored how second-class this Monday night matchup was.

Act II, Third Quarter, 13:42

You might say, if you wished to try to explain why Sanchez has been so bad this year, that his pass protection has been poor.

Sanchez has been sacked on 7.3 percent of his dropbacks this year, the 10th highest figure in the league. And last night was more of the same: He was sacked three times and hit an additional six times.

After Sanchez took one hit, by Titans defensive end Derrick Morgan, ESPN analyst Jon Gruden proclaimed, “Sanchez looks like he’s having a miserable, miserable time playing quarterback for this Jet offense.”

But a closer look reveals that the person most responsible for the sacks Sanchez has taken is Sanchez himself. According to Pro Football Focus stats, Sanchez has seen pressure on 28.7 percent of his dropbacks, which is 20th in the league. That he has gotten sacked the 10th-highest percentage of the time overall is due to the fact that he has been sacked 24.2 percent of the time he’s under pressure.

Contrast Sanchez to Eli Manning: Manning has been pressured a nearly identical percentage of the time to Sanchez, at 28.6 percent. Yet when he’s pressured, he only gets sacked 10.3 percent of the time, a league low-figure. As a result, his overall sack percentage is just 3 percent, or less than half of Sanchez’s.

So if Sanchez is miserable in the Jet offense, well, the feeling is mutual. Interceptions don’t make anyone feel better either. Right after the hit from Morgan, Sanchez overthrow tight end Jeff Cumberland on a deep seam pass. McCourty, who was bracketing Cumberland in deep coverage, made the easy interception.

The bracket coverage on Cumberland was so good on this play that Sanchez shouldn’t have attempted the throw. On top of that, the throw itself was terrible. That’s basically the problem with Sanchez: His decision-making is awful, and for a guy who’s supposedly can “make all the throws,” he doesn’t make any of the throws consistently enough.

Cut to two Jets fans in the stands with green shopping bags over their faces, with a hand-scribbled “6” and “15,” for Sanchez and Tebow, the tragic pillars of this embarrassing Jets season.

And then Gruden: “That’s the reason you make quarterback changes. Errant passes down the middle in tight football games with the playoffs on the line.”

Act III, Fourth Quarter, 7:26

The Jets defense has nothing to apologize for. They allowed just 12 first downs to the Titans last night (NFL average: 20), and 294 total yards (avg. is 348).

That they were able to compile an above-average statistical game despite allowing Chris Johnson’s 94-yard touchdown was a testament to their dominance on a play-for-play basis. Take Johnson’s run away, and on the Titans' 12 drives, not including their game-concluding kneeldown, they averaged 16.67 yards. Going into last night, they averaged around 29 yards per drive.

Time and again, the Jets defense quickly got the ball back to Sanchez and the offense with the change to regain the lead or seize control of the game. Just as routinely, Sanchez gave it back.

Such was the case in the fourth quarter, when the Jets took over at their own 23-yard-line, down 14-10. After two grinding up-the-middle runs by Shonn Greene gave them a first down, the Jets decided to throw a sideline bomb to Braylon Edwards. This was the old model: Get the defense thinking run, then sneak Edwards downfield for the deep ball.

It worked much better in 2009. Edwards, his speed greatly diminished since his first stint with the Jets, got no separation from the cornerback running with him. Deep safety Michael Griffin had no problem getting over the top to make the interception.

The cameras caught Sanchez with an open-mouthed look of perplexity. “Hey,” he said to someone as he unsnapped his chinstrap. “Where’d he come from?”

Act IV, Fourth Quarter, 2:00

Another three-and-out generated by the Jets defense gave Sanchez the ball at their 8-yard-line. Sanchez hit a couple of passes, Shonn Greene popped a couple of runs. They had a first down at the Titans’ 23 yard line, seemingly having saved their best drive of the night for last. Another ugly win and postgame proclamations of grit and fight seemed in the offing.

But on the next snap, pressure came, and Sanchez, as usual, reacted badly. He stood flat-footed in the pocket, a tendency that undermines his athleticism, and flung up a deep pass in the direction of Cumberland and three Titans. One of those Titans—Griffin, the safety—came down with the ball, at the 2-yard-line.

The Titans took over, needing only a first down to clinch the game.

Act V, Fourth Quarter, :47

Heroic again, the Jets defense got the ball back right away, after three predictable Titans plunges into the middle of the line and then a horrible, under-pressure punt that went out at their own 25-yard line.

Then, down by a score of 14-10, the defining moment of the Jets’ season: A low shotgun snap by Nick Mangold, which Sanchez couldn’t handle and was then inadvertently booted by Bilal Powell to a Titans defender, who recovered to seal the game.

It’s debatable who deserves more blame for this play, between Mangold and Sanchez. But it’s fair to say that in an interaction between a Pro Bowl center and a quarterback who just got on the books for his 24th turnover of the season and his 50th in the past two years, one of them gets the benefit of the doubt.

ESPN play-by-play man Mike Tirico, who grew up a Jets fan in Queens and had been savaging the Jets offense all night along with Gruden, put it emphatically and succinctly right as the referee was signaling the Titans’ recovery, which officially knocked the Jets out of the playoffs:

“That’s the way this game should end!" he said. "That’s the way the Jets' season should end!”