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Sanchez's deal an insincere gesture
In the three years since the team took Sanchez fifth overall, those idyllic dreams have failed to materialize, and at times — especially recently — Sanchez has looked more bust than boon. But the Jets and general manager Mike Tannenbaum haven’t given up hope on the Southern Cal product just yet.
Tannenbaum, over the weekend, extended Sanchez’s contract by three years, meaning he’ll be a Jet until at least 2016 — a boring move by a complacent team that would rather save a few bucks and maintain the second-rate status quo than set their sights on something greater.
They’ve invested another $40 million — at least on paper — into a player who can’t and won’t lead the Jets any further than he already has. Money well spent? I don’t think so.
True, the numbers on Sanchez’s contract are a bit deceiving. The smoke-and-mirrors deal essentially just clears some immediate cap space for the Jets by converting most of his guaranteed 2012 contract into a signing bonus, while still leaving them free to part ways with the 25-year-old quarterback should his 2011 struggles manifest themselves again over the next two seasons.
Sanchez's previously non-guaranteed $6 million contract in 2013 is now worth a guaranteed $8.75 million, but the additional three years are all team options, essentially making the extension nothing more than a good-faith gesture.
But it’s the type of gesture that has some Jets fans understandably seething, especially with a Hall of Fame quarterback like Peyton Manning currently on the market.
The Jets struck out in the ongoing Manning sweepstakes — not that they ever really had a chance; they looked like Larry Walker at the 1997 All-Star game, wearing a backwards helmet, swinging from the wrong side of the plate — so they set their sights considerably lower.
Instead of sharing MetLife Stadium with his brother, Manning, who would have meshed with head coach Rex Ryan like oil and water, will head elsewhere and turn a middling also-ran — Arizona? Denver? Miami? — into a contender while the Jets continue on their path of adequacy.
"I just don't want to get into hypotheticals," Tannenbaum said on a conference call Saturday when asked what potentially signing Manning would have meant for Sanchez. "You never know how those things play out. So I don't know."
But had the Jets emerged as a serious contender for the quarterback and eventually signed him, here’s what would have happened:
A motivated Manning, arguably the game’s top quarterback over the last 15 years and maybe the smartest player in the game, would have given the Jets an unmatched talent on the field while providing an instant dose of leadership in a Jets locker room that sorely needs it.
He’d have given the team the best shot they’ve had at a Super Bowl in a long, long time, and if nothing else, Manning’s locker room know-how would have quelled the concerns of Jets players who have questioned whether their current signal-caller has what it takes to win.
Shortly after the Jets’ season-ending loss to the Dolphins, multiple Jets players took to the New York Daily News to anonymously criticize Sanchez, who had largely been coddled by a protective Tannenbaum, his status as starting quarterback entirely unthreatened during his first three years in the Jets huddle.
“We have to bring in another quarterback that will make him work at practice,” one player told the paper. “He’s lazy and content because he knows he’s not going to be benched.”
Said another player: “They don’t want to be truthful with him. They treat him like a baby instead of a man. He goes in a hole when someone tells him the truth.”
A third member of Gang Green told the Daily News the Jets had no shot at a Super Bowl title with Sanchez at the helm.
“How can we when he’s not improving at all?” the player reportedly said. “He thinks he is, but he’s not. He has shown us what he’s capable of.”
Sanchez, for his part, doesn’t seem too concerned about what his teammates think, and I might not either if I had just signed his contract.
"If you're an unnamed source, you don't speak for yourself and therefore you don't really speak for the team, so I really didn't pay it any mind," Sanchez said. "There are plenty of guys like Nick Mangold and Dustin Keller that didn't need to (speak up) that went on the radio and stuff and defended my position and they defended me because they know how hard I work and how much I care about this team and my fellow teammates."
Lately, though, hard work and caring about his comrades hasn’t paid dividends.
Though the Jets reached the AFC Championship Game in the 2009 and 2010 seasons, the team took a huge step back in 2011, watching the crosstown Giants’ championship run from home after an epic collapse down the home stretch of the regular season left the team on the outside of the playoffs looking in.
Over the final three games of the season — with New York essentially needing just one win — Sanchez wilted, throwing more interceptions (seven) than touchdowns (five) while the Jets lost to the Eagles, Giants and lowly Dolphins.
"There's going to be critics no matter what, especially a few more on that bandwagon of critics when you go 8-8 and don't have your best game at the end of the year,” Sanchez said Saturday. “I'm totally taking that in stride. I understand that. That obviously wasn't our best effort, and we totally moved on from that."
Overall, Sanchez is 27-20 in the regular season as a starter, and he's thrown 55 touchdowns to 51 interceptions as a professional, earning him a career passer rating of 73.2 — not nearly high enough to earn a lucrative contract extension.
The playoffs have been Sanchez’s only saving grace, as he’s thrown for 1,155 yards, nine touchdowns and three interceptions while going 4-2 in six career playoff starts, but New York needs a quarterback it can count on to get to the playoffs — not one who they can trust not to drop the ball once they reach them.
At this point, though, the decision has been made and the damage has been done.
With his new deal in place, Sanchez will be wearing Jets green for the next five years — or maybe one or two; we’ll see — which, for fans of the team, is like walking away with the $1,000 consolation prize after finishing in the red on Jeopardy!, leaving the stage before the final round even gets started.
The Jets will continue to coddle their quarterback, as they have since 2009 — “Mark doesn't need anybody to motivate him to be great,” Tannenbaum said of bringing on a veteran backup to challenge Sanchez. “Mark wants to be great.” — and when the time comes, they’ll cut Sanchez, washing their hands of him without ever holding him accountable for the mistakes he’s made.
Sanchez needed someone to light a fire under him, someone to threaten his job and make him uncomfortable. Instead, his team has rewarded him for being barely good enough. It’s the Jets’ way, but it’s not going to win them any championships — which isn’t a surprise coming from a team that, after 40 years, is still looking for the next Joe Namath.
Follow Sam Gardner on Twitter: @sam_gardner