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Mark Sanchez stood on the sidelines, minutes after an uninspired three-and-out gave the Denver Broncos the ball on their own 5-yard line.
It looked, at the time, that the Jets defense would once again bail out an errant game from Sanchez. Once again, it looked like the Jets defense would mask Sanchez’s mediocrity.
See in the third quarter, Sanchez took the snap at his own 25-yard line and looked right. His eyes didn’t move. He fired a pass to the blanketed Plaxico Burress. Unbeknownst to Sanchez, Andre Goodman undercut the throw and took is back for a Broncos touchdown.
Initially, Sanchez’s head dropped to the ground. A sight seen too often for Jets fans.
But, everything was okay. Surely, Tim Tebow and a struggling offense couldn’t trounce down the field 95 yards and take the lead.
Surely, the Jets would escape.
With 5:54 left in the fourth quarter and up 13-10, Tebow engineered a 12-play, 95-yard drive that took 4:56 off the clock. There was Sanchez, standing on the sidelines watching. Maybe pondering that interception? The 3-for-14 third-down conversation rate? Or maybe deep down inside he was trembling at the thought of leading a game-winning drive.
Sanchez has nine game-winning drives in his career — not a bad number. But, in those nine games it was Sanchez who inevitably led the Jets to such a close game. In his game-winning comebacks, Sanchez completed over 60 percent of his passes twice and passed for under 200 yards fives times. Five times.
Three years ago, the Sanchez fit was perfect for the Jets.
Sanchez was the pretty boy GQ (to be) model. He had the appeal and swagger to be successful in New York. Then there was Rex Ryan. The complete opposite of his quarterback. Ryan’s tough, gritty and not as aesthetically pleasing (to be polite).
Ryan took ALL the media attention and Ryan did ALL the talking. Sanchez just had to go out and play. Ryan equipped Sanchez with a swarming defense, added a couple reliable offensive weapons, and built a stellar offensive line.
Sanchez — or Sanchize, Broadway Mark, etc. — couldn’t fail.
The Jets went 9-7 in 2009, got a wildcard spot, and surprised everyone by going to the AFC Championship Game. Sanchez wasn’t asked to do all that much. He completed 20 passing attempts or more just once that season, and passed for over 200 yards four times. Sanchez ended with 12 touchdown passes and 20 interceptions.
But, the Jets made the AFC Championship Game.
In 2010, the Jets went 11-5 and — you guessed it — was rewarded a wildcard spot. For the second year in a row, they advanced to the AFC Championship Game. Sanchez’s role increased, he completed 55 percent of his passes and played marvelously against the New England Patriots in the AFC Divisional Round. But, Sanchez had seven games where he passed for under 200 yards — including a 10-of-21 performance for 71 yards against the Baltimore Ravens.
But, the Jets made the AFC Championship Game. Do you see a trend?
Now, Sanchez’s role has continued to increase. It’s almost like Ryan, acting as a parent, patiently nurtured Sanchez, a baby for this anecdote, along waiting for him to walk on his own.
Sanchez found his legs and finally gotten full-range on offense. Aside from the fact that the Jets are two late game collapses by Tony Romo and Philips Rivers from being 3-7, Sanchez has been consistently inconsistent. One game he’ll look great (20-28, 230 yards, 1 TD against Bills) and others he looks like he doesn’t belong anywhere near the field (11-35, 119 yards, 2 INTs against Ravens).
This is no new story. Sanchez is playing no different than he has as a rookie. He hasn’t improved and has yet to put the Jets on his back. The difference as to why the Jets aren’t winning games this season is simple — the defense.
Because of Sanchez’s ineffectiveness, the Jets defense has been on the field for 622 plays this season, which is fourth in the NFL. The defense is allowing 5.7 yards per play, which is 1.5 more than in 2009 and .9 more from last season.
The old cliche that defense wins championships does hold some water. It was the defense, after all, that led the Jets to back-to-back AFC Championship games. But, you need an offense to put you over that hump.
You need a quarterback — something the Jets don’t have.
Follow Matthew Marcantonio on Twitter: @M_Marcantonio