It wasn’t quite “brutal” — the word Jets coach Rex Ryan used to describe a Geno Smith practice earlier this week — but Mark Sanchez by no means locked up the starting quarterback job with his performance in New York’s 37-13 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars on Saturday night.
With backups Smith and Greg McElroy both out with injuries, Sanchez, the beleaguered fifth-year quarterback, had an opportunity to secure the QB1 role with a strong effort against one of the league’s youngest defenses.
But Sanchez squandered that opportunity with inconsistent play and a pair of head-scratching decisions.
Sanchez played far more than is customary for an expected Week 1 starter in a team’s second preseason game. Leading the Jets on nine offensive drives and playing a full three quarters, Sanchez showed some flashes of improvement from his forgettable 2012 campaign, but also made a handful of plays that drew the dreaded (and far too familiar) boos from the MetLife Stadium home crowd.
“At times, when the protection really held up well for us, Mark did a nice job throwing the football,” Ryan said. "When we got in the red zone, it was tough sledding down there. Obviously, we need to do a better job.”
Sanchez, who still hasn’t been named the Jets’ regular-season Week 1 starter, began Saturday evening’s game with a commanding and impressive drive — six plays, 59 yards, 3-for-3 on pass attempts and a pretty 23-yard touchdown pass to Jeff Cumberland. It was a far more encouraging opening series than the one that ended with a pick-6 interception last Friday night in Detroit.
But then he regressed, which has been the inevitable Mark Sanchez narrative over the course of the past two seasons. And on Saturday evening, Sanchez followed up the impressive touchdown drive by throwing an ill-advised interception in the end zone on a pass intended for Kellen Winslow two drives later.
“I never saw the play — just kidding,” laughed Ryan, referring to his comments following Sanchez’s interception in Detroit. “It just never looked clean to me. The kid [defender Marcus Trufant] made a nice play.”
Then, with six seconds remaining in the first half, Sanchez inexplicably rolled right, ran around as the clock bled to zero and threw an incomplete pass — erasing any opportunity for a field-goal attempt.
It was the type of play you’d expect from a deer-in-headlights rookie with little to no clock awareness or experience. It was a play you’d expect from Smith, not Sanchez. For a quarterback entering his fifth NFL season? It was an inexcusable miscue.
“I will take the blame for that,” said Ryan. “I knew it was risky when I called that. And obviously, we never executed it very well. Obviously, it didn’t turn out the way I would have liked.
“Certainly, that one is on me,” reiterated Ryan. “It wasn’t designed that way, but those things happen. When the immediate throw wasn’t there, I think Mark thought he could make a play, and that’s why he did that.”
Said Sanchez of the ill-advised pass: “That won’t happen again. That shouldn’t happen. I have to get rid of the ball sooner. I know better than that.”
Yes, the Jets scored 37 points in a preseason game. But preseason final scores mean nothing. In total, the Jets made six trips to the red zone with Sanchez under center, and the quarterback threw zero passing touchdowns in those six trips.
Two times within the Jaguars’ five-yard line, the Jets came away with zero points. The Jets defense and ground game looked much improved from last week’s loss to the Lions, but the quarterback play still left a lot to be desired.
“We’re not willing to name a starting quarterback right now,” Ryan said after the game. “Will we name one before the Giants [Week 3] game? I don’t know. But right now, we’re not comfortable making that decision.”
It’s easy to pick on a quarterback when he’s down, and there are few quarterbacks viewed lower than Sanchez these days. But it’s disheartening to see a young man play so competently — as Sanchez did on the opening drive — only to take steps backward, mentally, not physically, so quickly thereafter.
Smith, the rookie challenging for the job, was upbeat in the locker room after the game. Though out with an injured ankle, he likely didn’t lose any ground in the quarterback competition.
“We’ll play it day by day,” said Smith. “Based on what I’ve been told, the competition is still open. We’ve got a long time to evaluate. We’ll see. Any time I get a chance to compete, I’m going to take full advantage of it. I’ve got another week of practice coming up. I’m going to go out there with the right mentality and try to win the job.”
Mark Sanchez wasn’t brutal on Saturday night, no. But in three full quarters of extended preseason action, he didn’t do himself any great favors, either.
The quarterback competition in New York is still open. It didn’t have to be.