FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — It was March, and the Jets had just pulled off a trade. Despite the presence of Mark Sanchez — once nicknamed “The Sanchise” — the Jets had brought in the most talked about, most followed, most controversial quarterback in the league in Tim Tebow.
Tebow would be the backup, the Jets insisted, and he has been. But it also indicated that the Jets weren’t as settled with their No. 1 quarterback as Sanchez would have preferred, and was especially curious in light of a three-year, $40.5 million contract extension Sanchez had just received.
“He was a little bit in shock, I think,” said Bob Johnson, Sanchez’s coach at Mission Viejo High School in California, who still works with the quarterback in the offseason. “But those are out of his control, and he knows that. So he’s just, ‘No problem, no problem.’
“But he knew it was going to create some problems. At least you would bet on that.”
The problem, though, has been more about Sanchez’s performance than about Tebow.
Before last Sunday’s game against the Colts, Sanchez had gone four straight games with a completion percentage of less than 50 percent. And even in Indianapolis, Sanchez only had to manage the game, completing 11 of 18 passes for 82 yards and two touchdowns, aided by a suddenly powerful ground game.
Sanchez, with his 49.7 percent completion rate, is the least accurate passer in the NFL, with Colts rookie Andrew Luck next at 53.4.
“You know, you are what your record says,” Sanchez said. “That’s the way you’re judged. There are a ton of teams at 3-3 and we’re just trying to keep playing hard and doing well.
“As far as my personal play, we’ve just got to get more wins. I think there are a few throws that I want back and stuff, but that’s natural. We’re working through some personnel issues here, getting guys healthy, so that’s helped this week. But I’m just trying to find ways to get wins and not really worry about outside opinions.”
That seems to be Sanchez’s standard line.
He’s not worried, though he is clearly under enormous pressure to lead the Jets past their 3-3 record, past the Patriots on Sunday at Gillette Stadium. And though it’s clear the Jets have been hampered by injuries — with receiver Santonio Holmes and tight end Dustin Keller missing significant time — Sanchez hasn’t been able to push past that and succeed.
His 49.7 completion percentage is lower than any of his three previous years in the NFL. His quarterback rating and yards per game are lower than any season since his rookie year. He doesn’t seem to be making the necessary progress in his fourth season.
And there is Tebow, in the same locker room.
“I think there’s a lot more stress on him,” Johnson said of Sanchez. “There’s only one team in the entire NFL that has that issue going on.”
Johnson continued, “I think he’s handled it well. It’s a very tough situation. So he’s doing the best he possibly can, being as politically correct — if that’s the right term — that he can be, and still being the leader on the team.”
Even when Jets coach Rex Ryan said, leading up to the game against Indianapolis, that Sanchez was the starter “this week,” words that led to speculation about his hold on the job.
Though there seem to have been discussions of playing Tebow at numerous positions in the Patriots game — including running back — full-time quarterback does not appear to be among them. At least not this week, not in the reprieve Sanchez has gotten after the blowout of the Colts.
The Jets, though, appear to be putting more focus on their running game, rushing for 252 yards against the Colts, 161 from Shonn Greene. It took the pressure off Sanchez, and created a scenario in which the quarterback didn’t have to win the game. It remains to be seen if that strategy will be as effective going forward.
As for Tebow, the Jets are continuing with the two-quarterback system that gives the ex-Bronco looks running the Wildcat.
“[Offensive coordinator Tony Sparano] does his best to keep us both comfortable, but at the same time when your number is called you’ve got to play well, whether you’re on the field for 60-plus plays or just a couple,” Sanchez said. “We both have to play well when we’re in there, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Sanchez, though, hasn’t played that well.
Johnson said that, in preparation for this season, Sanchez had “his best offseason of any year that he’s been there. I think he was throwing the ball better, I think he was stronger.”
But it hasn’t translated, not into completions and not into results, as the Jets have generally beaten the teams they should — and lost to the teams they should.
Sanchez, meanwhile, has tried to say all the right things, to not talk about himself, to learn how to work with Tebow while still maintaining the starter designation.
“He’s got to be the leader, he’s still their starter,” Johnson said. “He’s got to maintain his leadership and try not to let those outside things take away from that performance. I think he’s doing a remarkable job in trying to hold everything together and play with the stress.
“He is what he is. The situation is what the situation is. He’s got to make the best of it. So does Tim.”