Return to Nashville, singing a different tune

The Jets were at their dysfunctional worst in Tennessee last December. Much has changed since then. Andy Lyons/Getty Images

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. – On Sunday, the New York Jets go back to where last season effectively ended, back to where Mark Sanchez’s run as the starting quarterback ended. That it happened in Nashville was fitting, because the 2012 Jets were like an old country song: Too many bad things happened to them, and the breakups were looming.

Sanchez played the worst game of his career that Week 15 Monday night last December, a four-interception stinker that resulted in his immediate benching. Rex Ryan was so furious that he couldn’t wait until the team got back to New Jersey; he told Sanchez in the locker room – a decision with ripples that lasted for several months.

The Jets were at their dysfunctional worst, misusing Tim Tebow (again) and blowing a gift chance in the final minute to win the game. Sanchez mishandled a low snap by Nick Mangold, and Bilal Powell inadvertently kicked the ball away – a stupid Jet trick for the ages. Mathematically eliminated from playoff contention with the 14-10 loss, they were a franchise in disarray.

“A very disappointing night for us,” Ryan said Thursday, declining to look back in any great detail.

Asked in the offseason if that night was the low point of his career, Sanchez said simply, “It was a tough deal. I’m not a good loser.”

Understandably, no one wanted to dwell this week on the Music City meltdown, but what’s past is prologue, as Shakespeare wrote. That loss impacted the organization’s thinking in the offseason, certainly as it related to the quarterback position.

Now, 286 days later, the Jets will be back at LP Field, a rejuvenated team with new energy, a new quarterback and a new offense. They face the Tennessee Titans in a battle of 2-1 teams with a chance to stamp themselves as one of the league’s early surprises.

No one is saying the Titans are elite, but they’re not the Jacksonville Jaguars, either. They’re an efficient, physically tough team, and beating them would be a nice step for the Jets. New York needs to stockpile wins in these toss-up games, because the upcoming schedule is about to get tough.

“It’s a long season ahead,” Ryan said. “I think I know what it’s going to look like, but we’ll see.”

Eleven starters from last December’s game are gone, not counting Sanchez, who is on short-term injured reserve and may never take another snap for the Jets. You got the feeling that night that Sanchez was done as the starter, that there was no way owner Woody Johnson would go into 2013 with him as the face of the team.

That’s exactly how it played out, thanks to twists and turns and an ill-fated shoulder injury, but the Jets got their wish. Geno Smith is hardly a finished product, but he’s a big-armed quarterback who provides hope. He can make every throw. Some of them go to the wrong-colored jersey, but he’s getting the chance to make plays. The coaches are allowing him to win games, as opposed to coaching him not to lose. There’s a difference. With Sanchez, it always seemed to be the latter.

“I will say this with Geno: I’m impressed a little bit more every day,” offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said. “He’s an impressive young man, certainly talented.”

Mornhinweg said Smith is “beyond his years” in terms of sideline demeanor. He still has to protect the ball better, because seven turnovers in three games are way too many. His counterpart, Jake Locker, has yet to commit a turnover in 2013.

Smith recognizes he needs to improve a lot, a desired attribute in a young quarterback. Technically, the starting job doesn’t belong to him, not permanently, but he has turned that into a nonissue. Unless there’s a prolonged slump, there’s no chance he gets pulled.

“With the exception of [the turnovers],” Mornhinweg said, “I think he’s quite far along.”

Quarterback aside, the vibe around the team is dramatically different from what it was last Dec. 17. Tebow is long gone, the circus has packed up and the Jets are all about football. That was apparent Monday, when Ryan opened his news conference by noting there were only a couple of TV cameras in the room.

“There are 15 when we lose,” he said.

Someone told Ryan the TV crowd was over at the Giants’ facility, the new crisis epicenter of New York football.

Ryan didn’t say anything. He just smiled.