McElroy ends suffering under Sanchez

All season long, Jets fans have clamored for head coach Rex Ryan to demote quarterback Mark Sanchez, and on Sunday, they finally got their wish — even if the guy who finally supplanted the struggling fourth-year starter wasn’t the replacement they were hoping for.

After nearly three quarters of yet another unfortunate showing by Sanchez, Ryan decided that Sanchez’s downward spiral had dragged on too long, and, in a move that resonated like an act of benevolence as much as anything else, Ryan finally caved and radioed in for backup.

With beloved but rarely-utilized reserve Tim Tebow inactive due to a pair of broken ribs, it was second-year man Greg McElroy who got the call, but in a season that has been unraveling since Week 2, any change was welcome for New York’s aggravated fans.

To be sure, the former Alabama star’s NFL debut wasn’t pretty, and there’s plenty of room for improvement, but the little bit that McElroy did was exactly what the Jets needed — and just enough to get the job done — in their 7-6 win over the Arizona Cardinals.

Ryan initially put Sanchez on notice when he made the switch with the Jets trailing 3-0 with 4:48 left in the third quarter. By the 14:55 mark of the fourth quarter, the Sanchez Era in New York ended for what should be for good with McElroy’s one-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jeff Cumberland.

After selling a third-down play-action fake, Cumberland broke loose into the end zone, and didn’t have a Cardinals defender within 10 yards of him. Even still, McElroy rolled out and held onto the ball as long as possible and aimed it like a kid trying to throw a plastic ring around a water jug at the county fair.

“I almost didn’t want to throw it,” McElroy joked later, “but I had to let it go.”

And in completing that one exceptionally easy pass, something Sanchez, who went 10-of-21 for 97 yards and three picks, didn’t do nearly often enough, McElroy gave New York the lead and made as compelling an argument as any that he should be the Jets’ man under center going forward.

When asked, Ryan wouldn’t say whether McElroy or Sanchez — or Tebow, for that matter — would start next week against the Jaguars as the Jets look to improve to 6-7 and stay in the playoff hunt, but after vehemently defending Sanchez one dreadful game after another, Ryan’s passivity Sunday spoke volumes.

“I’ll let you guys know who’s going to be the quarterback when I’m ready,” Ryan said. “We’ll evaluate our situation as the week goes on. … Right now I’m just happy with the win. I believe in Mark. I believe in Greg. I believe in everybody we have.”

It only took one snap for Sanchez’s day to fall apart against Arizona, as he threw an interception to Kerry Rhodes on the Jets’ first offensive play — and it only got worse from there.

On New York’s third drive, Sanchez threw another dart at Rhodes, who reeled it in it as a matter of self-defense before returning it to the Jets 48. At the end of the quarter, Rhodes had caught as many Sanchez passes as anyone on the Jets and, with 32 interception yards, would have been Sanchez’s leading receiver.

Things didn’t get much better in the second quarter, and by halftime, the MetLife Stadium crowd was calling for Sanchez’s head again. The Jets’ fourth drive ended with a punt after a third-down sack, the fifth ended on another interception that, in Sanchez’s defense, was the result of a great play by Patrick Peterson. Another Jets possession started with an errant screen pass to Stephen Hill, who was 10 yards downfield, not running a screen route.

When the first half mercifully ended, New York, which had two Nick Folk field goal tries hit the upright, was lucky to only be down 3-0. The Jets had 146 yards of first-half offense to Arizona’s 115, and both Sanchez (34.1) and Cardinals quarterback Ryan Lindley (18.8) went to the locker room with passer ratings that were an insult to anyone who ever played the position before them.

The third quarter began much like the first half ended, and after three more stagnant drives, Ryan decided he’d seen enough and had McElroy hand his clipboard to Sanchez and start warming up behind the bench.

“It’s just something I sensed and felt,” Ryan said. “When you’re around this game long enough, you get that feeling that, ‘I’ve seen enough, and it’s time to make that change.’”

Added Sanchez: “From the get-go, obviously the first play, it just wasn’t my day. … It’s unfortunate, but I’m really happy for the team, and I’m happy for Greg. He came in and played his butt off.”

One thing should be made clear: McElroy didn’t beat the Cardinals with his arm or his legs on Sunday. There’s a reason that, after the game, everyone from Ryan down praised McElroy for his smarts and little else. On the game-winning scoring drive, McElroy completed two easy passes for nine yards while Bilal Powell did all the work, and from there, he only succeeded in not screwing up.

After the touchdown toss, McElroy completed three out of four passes and got away with one indefensibly stupid throw when officials negated a would-be interception with an illegal contact penalty. He led a game-ending 7:55 drive that featured exactly one throw — though, to his credit, it was a 13-yard, back-shoulder beauty to Jeremy Kerley on third-and-9.

Had New York not been facing such an exceptionally sad-sack Arizona offense — one led by a quarterback who even Jets fans wouldn’t clamor for — they’d have lost the game regardless of which one of their own quarterbacks was wearing a ball cap. Arizona managed just 22 yards in the second half, 16 of them coming on one play, and went 0-for-15 on third down.

But what McElroy did bring to the table was a much-needed change in philosophy from the Jets, and the crowd recognized what Ryan finally benching Sanchez represented. When Sanchez sulked to the sideline and McElroy strapped on a helmet, a buzz started to build around the stadium, and when McElroy took the field, he received a huge, Tebow-esque ovation.

Things had gotten so depressing in New York when Sanchez was on the field this season that you could make yourself believe that simply having someone new in the huddle made all the difference in the world. The Thanksgiving Day butt-fumble play notwithstanding, McElroy doesn’t hand the ball off any better than Sanchez, but in desperate times like these, Jets fans are well within their rights to believe that he does.

It was also refreshing to see a little enthusiasm in the backfield again. McElroy looked as excited to be in the game as you would expect a 24-year-old in his first NFL game to be, and his passion — especially after hopping up from a third-quarter unnecessary roughness penalty that set up the score — was a welcome change from the milquetoast personality Sanchez brings everywhere he goes.

Regardless of how much credit he actually deserves for it, McElroy came in on Sunday and won the game, something the Jets haven’t done with any consistency of late. McElroy’s mere presence on the field shot a jolt through the Jets faithful, and at this point, it would be disrespectful — forget impractical — to both Sanchez and the fans to put Sanchez back in the starting role next week against Jacksonville.