EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The New York Jets went into Saturday night seeking clarity at the quarterback position. By halftime, they had it. Rookie Geno Smith flunked his audition, leaving the starting job to Mark Sanchez. That's when Rex Ryan made quite possibly the worst coaching move since Marty Mornhinweg won an overtime toss in 2002 and elected to kick off.
Ryan made an irresponsible decision, summoning Sanchez from the bullpen with 11:21 remaining in the fourth quarter of a preseason game at MetLife Stadium. There was nothing to be gained by putting Sanchez behind an offensive line filled with backups. It was all risk, no reward, and it blew up on Ryan in the worst possible way.
The coach might have fired himself, because his quarterback situation went from questionable to an absolute mess. Sanchez suffered an injury to his throwing shoulder, and Smith, who threw three interceptions and took an unnecessary safety in the 24-21 overtime win over the New York Giants, isn't ready to take over the offense.
Ryan's challenging season just got a whole lot harder, and he knows it. His behavior in his postgame news conference went from ultra-defensive to bizarre as he parried with reporters who grilled him about his ill-fated decision. At one point, he turned his back to a reporter and was facing sideways as he rambled on about his reasoning. It was weird.
"It was my decision all the way," he said, going on to explain that he played Sanchez because he wanted to win the game.
Is Ryan feeling that much pressure from new general manager John Idzik that he feels it's necessary to win a preseason game? It was a lame excuse.
"I understand being second-guessed and stuff when an injury happens -- certainly I understand that -- but that's football," Ryan said.
Maybe he was reciting scripted answers from the how-to-handle-the-media cards that were handed out by the public-relations staff.
Make no mistake: The controversy is only beginning. Judging by the way he reacted on the sideline, Sanchez seemed surprised to be getting the call. Ryan announced Thursday that he planned to play Sanchez after Smith, but maybe the plan changed. Sanchez didn't expect to play, according to a source.
Another source said Sanchez didn't want to be put into a game with the backups. There was a strange sequence on the sideline before he went in. Third-stringer Matt Simms put on his helmet, chatted with Mornhinweg and seemed ready to go in. Sanchez was relaxing on the bench.
All of a sudden, Sanchez was taking quick warm-up tosses. The entire thing was so rushed that, at one point, he got hit with two footballs at the same time, a juggling act gone bad. It was a funny moment, caught by the TV cameras. Harmless, right? A few minutes later, no one was laughing.
Perhaps there was a communication breakdown on the Jets sideline between Ryan and his new offensive coordinator, Mornhinweg, he of the infamous Detroit Lions coin toss. Would a miscommunication be a surprise? No team in the league can botch a quarterback situation better than the Jets. On Ryan's watch last season, the Jets became a national punchline for their handling of the Tim Tebow drama.
"That was gross mismanagement of the quarterback position," an opposing executive said late Saturday night. "I'd be pissed if I were [Sanchez]."
The entire debacle was born of the Jets' breathless desire to elevate Smith to a job he isn't ready for. Upper management, led by GM John Idzik, clearly wanted no part of Sanchez as the opening-day starter, so it extended the competition to the third game. The Jets were experimenting at a time when the offense should've been trying to build continuity with its starters.
They rolled out Smith hoping he'd seize the opportunity. He was terrible for most of three quarters, making poor decisions and showing his lack of experience. By the second quarter, it was clear to everyone in the stadium that he'd lost the job to Sanchez.
"That's an assumption on your part," Ryan told a reporter. "We'll make a call on the starting quarterback when we think it's appropriate."
He sounded like a desperate man, explaining how they wanted to beat the Giants. For what, the MetLife Snoopy trophy? You half expected Ryan to break out into a Herm Edwards "You play to win the game" rant.
Well, Ryan won the game, all right. But he lost his best quarterback, and you could tell from the curt responses from players that it wasn't a popular decision in the locker room.
"It's not my call," Nick Mangold said. "We do as we're told."
Sanchez was sacked by Marvin Austin on his first play. That should've been a warning flare. He took a few other hits before Austin got him good, ramming him as he escaped the pocket on a 23-yard completion to Mohamed Massaquoi.
Say what you want about Sanchez's mistake-prone ways, but never question his physical toughness. The man has missed only one game in four seasons. He was in severe pain and later was experiencing significant discomfort, a source said.
The Jets took an $8.25 million player and put him in harm's way, for no good reason.
"Unfortunately, the best play he makes in all of the preseason, he ends up getting hurt on it," Ryan said.
He sounded like he was trying to convince himself he did the right thing. It won't work. The play will haunt him for a long time.