NFL teams don't often get the chance to rebuild on their own terms. In most cases, they're the last people to find out that it's time. A team that can scratch some credible way to contention in August finds themselves wasting away at the bottom of the league by November and realizes, after all, that it's time to make wholesale changes. Other teams see the writing on the wall and battle against the truth for a couple of years, desperately clinging to shreds of relevancy as they lose the leverage they'll never regain. The latter explanation, as you probably suspect, aptly characterizes the New York Jets, whose miserable loss to the Titans on Monday Night Football eliminated Gang Green from playoff contention, while crystallizing the need to make a change in their three-man core of Rex Ryan, Mark Sanchez, and general manager Mike Tannenbaum.
The problems that surround the Jets go back to the last time they faced a moment of crisis. After a 4-12 2007 season, the then-braintrust of Tannenbaum and head coach Eric Mangini decided that the Jets needed to go all-in (it was a poker term that was popular in 2007) to try to save the braintrust's respective jobs. Only two years after seemingly beginning a rebuilding project, the Jets spent freely in the offseason, adding Damien Woody, Kris Jenkins, Calvin Pace, and Alan Faneca in free agency, and then following up by trading for Brett Favre. The moves sorta worked — Faneca and Jenkins made the Pro Bowl — but Favre struggled to stay healthy while the deposed Chad Pennington signed with Miami and won the division. The Jets lost in Week 17, missed the playoffs at 9-7, and Mangini paid for it with his job.
Tannenbaum remained on board, though, and after hiring Rex Ryan, he somehow found more chips in his pockets to push to the center of the table. The following year saw Ryan favorites Bart Scott and Jim Leonhard arrive in town, with Braylon Edwards joining the team via trade during the season. The Jets had established themselves as a landing point for veteran free agents and trade candidates, and Tannenbaum performed cap magic to fit everyone in. He even tried to create space in consecutive years for Nnamdi Asomugha and Peyton Manning, but each player chose to head elsewhere.
The downside in Tannenbaum making those moves, though, was that the cap eventually had to come due. No general manager in the league seemed better at convincing his veterans to re-negotiate their contracts and clear up cap space, but that forced Tannenbaum to make concessions that jeopardized future spending opportunities. Players like Pace and Scott re-negotiated their deals and had future salaries guaranteed or salaries converted into signing bonuses that stretched into future seasons, deals that would accelerate if the Jets cut those players. Tannenbaum often found ways to use every bit of the space he created; in many ways, what he was doing wasn't dissimilar from the Isiah Thomas-era Knicks.
Of course, the difference between the Thomas-era Knicks and the first two years of the Tannenbaum-era Jets is that the Jets were winning. You can make a decent case that the success enjoyed by the triumvirate during the 2009 and 2010 seasons was generously lucky. In 2009, the Jets needed six quarters of teams disinterested in competing at the end of their season to worm their way into a playoff spot, and they rode an incredible string of five consecutive missed field goals to make it to the AFC championship game. The following year's team went 5-3 in games decided by one score or less and needed every one of those wins to make it in, and they drew a lame Peyton Manning in the first round. Those teams also recovered just about 70 percent of the fumbles in their games over a two-year stretch, a virtually unprecedented rate of recovery.
Sanchez was at the helm for all of this, but he wasn't joined by very many young players of any renown. With the trades they were making to acquire Favre, Edwards, Sanchez, and other players and picks, the Jets stopped having anything resembling full drafts. The Jets haven't had many draft picks, and of the ones they've had, precious few have developed into impact starters. They had two first-rounders in 2008, missing badly on Vernon Gholston and coming up with a spare part in Dustin Keller, but nothing else before the fourth round. They had just three selections in 2009, finding Sanchez, third-rounder Shonn Greene, and sixth-rounder Matt Slauson. That bounced up to four in 2010, but the finds were marginal: Kyle Wilson, Vlad Ducasse, Joe McKnight, and John Conner. The Jets had no second-rounder in 2011 and no fourth- or fifth-rounder in 2012 (although they finished up with three sixes). Although they appear to have found a star in defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson, their 2011 first-rounder, there just wasn't much left in the cupboard for the Jets if their starters got old fast or their stars got hurt.
Unfortunately for Jets fans, that's exactly what's happened. The offensive line, once dominant with Faneca and Woody, failed to replace them with competent linemen from the likes of Slauson and Wayne Hunter. Investments in the likes of Edwards, Santonio Holmes, and Plaxico Burress left few reps for any young talent to develop at wideout and a lack of cap space to bring in any weapons to serve as a backup. When the Jets finally did draft a weapon at wide receiver, it was the super-raw Stephen Hill, who was forced to start immediately in the absence of any competition around him. The defense has been more competent, but veterans like Pace, Davis, and Bryan Thomas are shells of their former selves. More disconcertingly, even their young building blocks aren't the same; Darrelle Revis will have to prove himself after tearing his ACL, while run-stopping dynamo David Harris has been a fraction of what he used to be for about a year now. (Watch him and Scott disappear on Chris Johnson's long touchdown run from last night.)
That brings us to Sanchez, whose failure to launch has become the ultimate symbol of the Jets' breakdown. The four interceptions Sanchez threw against Tennessee were awful, of course, but it goes beyond that. This was the seventh time this year that Sanchez has thrown 20 passes in a game while failing to complete at least 50 percent of those passes. Nobody else in the league has more than four such games. Sanchez has 14 of them during his career, and the only other player with more than 10 over that time frame is Joe Flacco (12).
The hope was always that Sanchez would develop after spending just one season in regular rotation at USC, but Sanchez simply hasn't matured into a competent quarterback or even a remotely different one. He struggles to set his protections on third down, fails to go through his reads in an orderly fashion, and makes risky throws at precisely the wrong time. Sanchez's final pick of the day was a perfect example of that, a dangerous throw up the seam to a double-covered receiver on first down at the two-minute warning. Even before Michael Griffin — who wasn't even one of the two defenders in the double coverage — swooped in to pick the ball off, the throw was inane because it was such a low-upside, high-downside decision at a time when the Jets could afford to be conservative. It was four-down territory with the game on the line; it was exactly the sort of play where you throw the ball away and try your luck again on the next down. Instead, Sanchez forced the throw. It was a rookie mistake for a player who, if anything, is regressing with his additional NFL experience.
Now, don't fool yourself into thinking that everybody knew that Sanchez was terrible and that the Jets should have realized it two years ago. This is the same guy who was earning points for being a winner in 2009 and 2010, years where the Jets had a top-5 running game and a top-5 defense around him. It wasn't even two years ago where Phil Simms and Boomer Esiason derided the stats that suggested Sanchez had thrown a disproportionate amount of dropped picks in 2010, with Esiason noting the following:
All I can go by is what I see. I don’t worry about dropped interceptions. There are just as many dropped passes as dropped interceptions. Nobody seems to use that argument in favor of Mark. All I can tell you is that when you’re hitting big play after big play on the road in NE, road in Pitt, road in Indy when the game is on the line … that’s all I need to know. All of those guys who write about those stats have never been in that situation and can never truly understand the pressure that is associated with it. When the pressure rises, he calms down and he seems like he’s in control.
It's a remarkable coincidence that Sanchez has seemingly forgotten how to handle the pressure and calm down at the exact same moment in time as his defense has fallen apart from old age and injuries and his running game has sputtered into nothingness. (Or that his interception rate from 2010 is significantly below his rate in each of Sanchez's three other seasons.) There's nothing wrong with believing in intangibles and that certain quarterbacks handle pressure better than others, but you also can't let yourself get blinded by that possibility and assume that a guy's going to win with bad numbers and worse habits forever.
That brings us to this upcoming offseason, where the Jets are widely expected to make some sort of change among that triumvirate while acknowledging that they have to make changes. Of the three, I think the evidence suggests that Ryan is the least culpable for these problems; as tempted as I am to point out that he led a team with Mark Sanchez at quarterback to consecutive AFC championship games and drop the proverbial mic, Ryan has done more than that. The organization has committed themselves to Sanchez financially (more on that in a moment), and in doing so, left Ryan with no option beyond Sanchez at quarterback. With that in mind, Ryan's done an incredible job of boosting Sanchez's confidence and getting behind him at quarterback, even through the rough patches of the past four years. For whatever shenanigans we expected when the Jets brought in Tim Tebow this offseason, Ryan has never entertained a quarterback controversy or given Tebow anything resembling equal time. Although he has been portrayed as a buffoon at times, Ryan plays the New York media extremely well and does a fantastic job of taking the pressure off of his team at exactly the right time. He has also managed to piece together a competent defensive line with spare parts, helping to develop his one blue-chipper (Wilkerson) into a star while getting significant contributions from the likes of Sione Po'uha and Mike DeVito.
If we take firing Ryan out of the picture, that leaves us with two paths, each dictated by what the Jets do with Sanchez. I've written in the past about how the Jets guaranteed Sanchez $20.5 million over the next two years when they gave him a contract extension this past year. Well, Jets beat reporter Rich Cimini took a look at Sanchez's contact and found that it was basically uncuttable before 2014. If the Jets cut Sanchez at the beginning of the offseason, he'll cost $17.1 million against their cap, which is $4.3 million more than the cap hold for keeping Sanchez on the roster. They could wait till June 1 and push $4.8 million of that $17.1-million hit back to 2014, but then they won't be able to make any moves with that space during the previous four months.
So, then, the decision on Sanchez becomes the decision that tells the Jets which way to go. If they truly decide that Sanchez is uncuttable and better kept on the roster, they'll probably be stuck giving Sanchez one last shot to produce in 2013. If they're going to go down that path, they need to do everything in their power to create a situation where Sanchez can improve to the point where the Jets can win football games. That means getting rid of Tebow, adding at least a competent veteran wide receiver to supplement the combination of Santonio Holmes, Jeremy Kerley, and Hill, and, most importantly, bringing in an offensive coordinator and/or quarterbacks coach with a significant track record of turning around quarterbacks to try and rebuild Sanchez from the ground up over the course of one summer. As happy as Jets fans were with the decision to fire Brian Schottenheimer, it's turned out to be disastrous, as Tony Sparano just hasn't been an effective offensive coordinator. Quarterbacks coach Matt Cavanaugh's time is up after four years with Sanchez, too.
The obvious candidate will make the blood of Jets fans run cold: It's Norv Turner. For whatever you can say about Turner's issues as a head coach, his ability as an offensive coordinator and quarterback whisperer is virtually unquestioned. Turner was the only coach before Jim Harbaugh who ever got anything out of Alex Smith, and he was even able to get competent play out of Jay Fiedler with Miami before he took over as Raiders head coach in 2004. Think about him as the offensive version of Wade Phillips, who was a laughingstock as Cowboys head coach before taking over as the Houston defensive coordinator and turning them into a top-5 unit overnight. You fire Sparano and Cavanaugh, give Turner one year to turn Sanchez around, and then re-evaluate things after 2013. It probably won't work, but Sanchez's contract might dictate that you have to give it a shot.
On the other hand, the Jets could be so sick of Sanchez and this lineup that they clean house and move on. In that case, New York will need to use 2013 to get rid of just about every bad contract they have on the roster. It won't be enough to dump Sanchez; they'll also want to cut the likes of Holmes, Keller, Pace, Scott, and even Harris. They would be right to hit the trade market and see what they can get for Revis, whose contract will be coming up in 2014, while floating the likes of D'Brickashaw Ferguson and Antonio Cromartie to see if there's an opportunity to acquire additional draft picks. This Jets team will probably be the worst squad in the league in 2013, but it will at least allow the team to make a clean break with the disappointing Jets of 2011-12 and build anew for the future.
If they do that, it makes sense to fire Tannenbaum. His draft record is spotty, especially since Mangini left town, and his track record of spending hand over fist to try to create a competitive team won't fit with these new Jets for a couple of seasons. They'll want someone who can rebuild the franchise from a scouting background, not a cap guy.
In this situation, they might also consider moving on from Ryan. Although I think Ryan is an above-average coach, he's probably a better fit on a veteran team than he is with a rebuilding one. I don't know that the Jets should necessarily fire him, but if Ryan doesn't want to be a part of a youth movement, could the Jets find a trade partner who might be willing to give up a mid-round pick for a head coach with some track record of playoff success? Could that trade partner be Philadelphia, who's likely to have an opening and want a veteran coach who won't demand personnel control, let alone one whose father became an icon in the town? That could allow the Jets to negotiate a soft departure from the Ryan-Sanchez-Tannenbaum era altogether and rebuild the franchise going forward.
If neither of those options sounds appealing to you, well, welcome to the Jets' nightmare. The window of contention that Tannenbaum seemed to pry open with bags of money is basically shut now, and it's going to take some unprecedented level of development from Sanchez this offseason to pry it back open again anytime soon. The game is telling the Jets that it's time to rebuild, with Monday night only serving to re-shout the obvious into Gang Green's ears. Barring a miracle, the old Jets are done for. The only question left now is whether the Jets are brave enough — or smart enough — to realize it and move on.