New York Jets release Mark Sanchez: Too harsh, too soon

new york jetsThe New York Jets officially released quarterback Mark Sanchez on Friday, March 21, ending a controversial, roller coaster relationship that began in 2009 when he was drafted to the team as the fifth overall pick.

Sanchez had undeniable faults and has not performed sufficiently enough in recent years, so it’s not for nothing that NFL enthusiasts–even many Jets fans themselves–have been calling for a replacement  quarterback. Thus, the move is understandable and unsurprising, but I don’t think Sanchez deserved the boot just yet.

I think it’s too soon to write Sanchez off as a potential solid starting quarterback–his breakthrough year where everything clicks into place and he takes off was still to come. You might say that should have happened already and if it hasn’t yet, it’s not going to, but looking at the numbers and going with my gut, I think he might have surprised everyone  this past season had he not been injured (a result of a horrible, infuriating coaching decision, but we’ll revisit that situation later).

I am not just saying this because of his good looks and/or because I feel bad for him.

There are stats to support it. Let’s start with his first year.

Sanchez was a rookie quarterback being led by a rookie coach. It was Rex Ryan’s first year with the Jets and his first year as a head coach in the NFL. Sanchez’s numbers weren’t great, or even close to it; he had a 53.8% completion rate, a passer rating of 63 and quarterback rating of 31.5, he coughed up eight fumbles and threw 21 interceptions. But the Jets went 9-7 that year, coming in second in the AFC East and getting to the Conference Championship. They beat the 11-7 San Diego Chargers and the 10-7 Cincinnati Bengals to get there and lost the conference championship by less than two touchdowns against the Peyton Manning-led Indianapolis Colts.

In his sophomore season, Sanchez showed improvement across the board. He threw for almost 1,000 more yards, bumping his completion rate up to 54.8%, his passer rating up to 75.3 and quarterback rating up to 49.2. He trimmed down his number of fumbles and interceptions. That year, the Jets went 11-5, again finishing second in the AFC and again making it all the way to the Conference Championships, beating two teams led by top tier quarterbacks– Manning (Colts), and Tom Brady (the New England Patriots). In the conference round, they lost by less than a touchdown to another then-top tier quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger.

Do those playoff runs count for nothing on Sanchez’s record?

In 2011, although the Jets record was 8-8 and they did not make the playoffs, Sanchez showed even more improvement. His interceptions went back up to 18  and his overall quarterback rating went down to 36, but he made one less fumble, threw for more yards, and bumped his completion rate to 56.7%, and his passer rating to 78.2.

Does three years of relatively steady improvement mean nothing?

There is the matter of the 2012 season, which can’t be ignored. His stats fell, he made multiple embarrassing mistakes, most notoriously the “butt fumble” (Sanchez ran into his teammate’s backside, leading to a fumble turned touchdown recovery), and the team finished the season with a losing record of 6-10.

But there’s one logical explanation for why Sanchez might have fallen apart: Tim Tebow.

The most media circus-prone team brought on one of the most media circus-prone players, who happened to be a quarterback, and expected it not to be a problem. The words quarterback controversy came up before games were even played and it’s not unlikely Sanchez cracked under the pressure of having Tebow there to replace him. One might say that having pressure should make a quarterback better, not worse, since it is a position that should require tough skin. But Sanchez  had had essentially no one to threaten him since signing with the Jets, as previous backup Kellen Clemens wasn’t much of a contender for starting quarterback. So to go from total comfort to being under the microscope of the entire NFL fan-base with someone like Tebow breathing down his neck, was probably a hard transition.

Plus, Sanchez can’t be solely to blame for the Jets demise that fateful season. The defense wasn’t as strong as it had been previously and the team stars didn’t shine as brightly. Only two Jets players went to the pro bowl- Antonio Cromartie and Laron Landry, the smallest number since Sanchez’s arrival. All around the team just wasn’t producing the same as the squad that had gone to the playoffs.

A friend of mine pointed out that this is actually proof that Sanchez’s strong start was only thanks to the talent he had around him and that when that talent was lost, his weaknesses were exposed.

My response: Then that’s all the more reason to believe he still might have improved. If he started off with a better team than he had in 2011 and 2012, then perhaps he just needed to adjust to having less to work with. A child doesn’t go from training wheels to a big kid bike without falling a couple of times. His first two seasons with a strong team were his training wheels and the last two were him learning to ride a big kid bike. Perhaps in 2013 he would have gotten it down and been able to ride a marathon, or in terms of football, brought the Jets back into the playoffs.

In the 2013 season, the Jets brought in Geno Smith, an unsubtle move indicating that the Jets were considering a new starting QB. Thus Quarterback Controversy Number 2 began. Right from the start of the preseason the heat was on and Sanchez did make mistakes. But he was still winning the job of starting quarterback for the regular season (if only because Smith and Matt Simms simply weren’t better) until for some reason no one can quite fathom, Rex Ryan, possibly frustrated with Smith for throwing three interceptions, put Sanchez into the meaningless preseason game against the New York Giants, midway through the fourth quarter (instead of the more logic choice, Simms). He promptly suffered a shoulder injury that would take him out for the season.

And instead of giving a healed Sanchez a year to make up for one he lost because of a poor coaching decision, the Jets cut him. And they do it after major quarterback signings already took place.

Sounds real nice doesn’t it?

The Jets are keeping Smith who, although his rookie season stats are higher than Sanchez’s, looked a whole lot sloppier and inconsistent than the first year Sanchez, and who led his team to only an 8-8 record.

They are bringing in Vick who certainly has much more talent than Smith and Sanchez, but who may not be healthy enough to play a whole season or be a long term solution.

And Sanchez, though he has found a new home with the Philadelphia Eagles, now has to sit second string behind Nick Foles, with a solid number three quarterback Matt Barkley (whom succeeded Sanchez as USC quarterback) looming over him.

What a disappointing and in my opinion, insensible way to end the Jets career of QB #6. The Jets will find a new, probably better franchise quarterback at some point, but I truly believe they gave up too soon on a possibly great thing. And Sanchez may become a high demand backup quarterback but I fear the Jets have destroyed his chances to fully realize the starting QB potential I believe he has.

Alas, love him or hate him, I think New York fans owe Sanchez thanks and well wishes for the good he did do while with the Jets (like epically beating Brady twice), so on behalf of everyone:

So long Sanchez, thanks for the memories. Jets management, not cool guys, not cool.

And now, on to the Vick-Smith era, which will probably be as short lived, controversial and bizarre (if not shorter and more controversial) than that of the Sanchez Era. [Read: http://isportsweb.com/2014/03/22/michael-vick-is-a-jet/]

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