No one should be surprised by the relative poor play of Mark Sanchez, certainly not Rex Ryan and the Jets. Ryan knew what he was getting when he traded up to draft Sanchez in 2009. He was looking for a complementary quarterback that would fit his world view of championship NFL football: Run the ball with power and efficiency, and dominate with a turnover-based defense. The quarterback was a puzzle piece, a role player more than a foundation.
That’s what Ryan got with Sanchez: A limited passer with above average arm strength who was at his best in a timing-and-rhythm pass game in which the ball could come out quickly to the primary read. If the Jets could stay ahead of the down, and play in manageable down and distance situations, then Sanchez could function effectively.
In 2009, Sanchez’s rookie year, the Jets led the NFL in rushing attempts and yards. Defensively, they allowed both the fewest yards and the fewest points. This was football the way Ryan envisioned it.
The Jets, despite Sanchez’s low completion percentage and AFC-high 20 interceptions, made the playoffs. In fact, they won 2 postseason games. In those wins, Sanchez totaled less than 40 attempts. In a passing league, this clearly defied the accepted methodology.
The Jets ’09 run ended in the AFC Championship against Peyton Manning and the Colts, when Ryan’s defense could not hold up in the second half after leading 17-13 at halftime. Lost in Manning’s brilliant performance that day was the fact the Jets did not score in the final 2 quarters.
In 2010, the Jets’ team profile remained essentially the same. They were second in the NFL in both rushing attempts and yards. Defensively, they were not quite as strong statistically, but the basic template was still in place. Sanchez was slightly more efficient, and he limited his interceptions to 13. But he was still a component piece, nothing more. He won a few games in the fourth quarter, which elevated his public perception, but that did not alter Ryan’s fundamental philosophy nor meaningfully change Sanchez’s limitations as a passer.
The 2010 playoffs mirrored those of 2009. Sanchez threw for less than 200 yards against the Colts in the Wild Card game, as the Jets ran for 169 yards and held Manning to 54 offensive plays and 16 points. Then followed the big Divisional Playoff win against New England: 25 passes for Sanchez and less than 200 yards. A bad start in the AFC Championship doomed a Jets team not built to rally from a large deficit: after falling behind the Steelers 24-0 in the first half, New York could not come back.
What’s happened in 2011? The twin foundations of the team have not performed at the necessary levels: the Jets rank 22nd in rushing, averaging only 104 yards per game. The defensive deterioration has been just as striking: in points allowed, they also rank 22nd. These failings have placed the burden on Sanchez to suddenly be something he was not ever expected to be: a lead quarterback who is the focal point of the offense. Sanchez was not drafted to play that role, and he’s not capable of it.
So make no mistake, the Jets struggles are not merely surprisingly poor play. They stem from the very heart of the team and how it’s seen itself during the 3 years of the Ryan era. Nothing significant about Mark Sanchez has changed. It’s the rest of the team that has changed. That’s what has magnified their quarterback’s limitations.