EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The game was already over, long over, early in the fourth quarter when Mark Sanchez was asked to drop back and pass. The New York Jets held a 26-point lead over the Jacksonville Jaguars, a team that had a better chance of winning the American League East than it did of staging a comeback.
Rex Ryan put his franchise quarterback in harm's way, anyway. The one player the Jets cannot replace, the one whose extended absence would end the season on the spot, the one who was tested for a concussion only six days earlier was charged to throw a needless touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress.
Sanchez absorbed a crushing hit from a defensive end named Matt Roth instead, a direct hit on the same right shoulder Sanchez hurt last year, leaving the under-thrown pass looking more like a pin-pricked balloon.
If the ball fell harmlessly to the ground, the quarterback did not.
After he crash-landed on his back with the 6-foot-4, 275-pound Roth on top of him, after he stayed down on the field long enough for teammates and fans to think the unthinkable, after he rose to his feet and let his right arm hang like a wet towel from a hook, Sanchez stood at his locker and spoke of this entirely avoidable assault.
"I just took a good shot on the arm when I was in the [throwing] motion," he said. "Any time you do that, it's always scary."
Not to mention dumb. In fact, putting Sanchez in that vulnerable position ranks among the dumbest things Rex Ryan has done as head coach of the Jets.
Consider Ryan's reason for the call. "I was trying to get Plax a catch over there," the coach said of Burress, who hadn't made one all game.
Never mind that, by all accounts, Burress hadn't complained about his lack of touches. Never mind that the double-covered Burress had told coaches he was fine with the role of decoy, or that he'd advised Dustin Keller to "just tear [the Jaguars] to pieces."
Never mind that this older, post-prison Plax wasn't waving his arms in disgust and showing up Sanchez the way a younger, pre-prison Plax sometimes showed up Eli Manning.
A contender is always one play away from oblivion in the NFL, and that play is any that leaves the starting quarterback in a smoldering heap. On first-and-goal at the 6, Ryan should've slapped a red jersey on Sanchez, called for three straight handoffs and taken the field goal and 32-3 lead. Better yet, Ryan should've removed Sanchez and ordered Mark Brunell to run the same plays.
But Rex was too busy being Rex, with the aid of offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, of course. On first down, Sanchez fired high to an open Burress in the end zone. Shonn Greene gained a sensible yard on the following play and then Sanchez was told to do something, anything, to get Burress a touchdown on the right side.
"I was trying to get Plax a one-on-one shot, an opportunity," Ryan said. "He'd been taking a double-team and [they were] rolling coverage to him almost the entire game. So I tried to give him an opportunity and unfortunately the guy had a good pass rush and got a good hit on Mark."
Roth beat Wayne Hunter, the right tackle traumatized last week by DeMarcus Ware. Sanchez was so beaten up by the Dallas defense, he needed baseline and balance tests after the game to determine if his brain was concussed.
Ryan maintained Sanchez passed those tests "with flying colors," but added he was concerned over the number of hits (10) the Cowboys put on his man. "We've got to do a better job of protecting him," Ryan said.
The coach was the one who didn't protect the quarterback against the Jags.
"It was my fault," Ryan said of the hit on Sanchez.
Damn right it was.
"It's the way it goes," Sanchez said. "You get hit in the game and that's the way things happen and it always looks worse and sounds worse when you're throwing and it's your throwing motion. And everybody's just kind of real sensitive to that, but it's fine. It's just another hit in the game. No big deal."
No, Sanchez wasn't about to publicly blitz the same coach who drafted him, started him as a rookie and helped him land in two straight AFC title games. Sanchez said that he felt "fine," and that he didn't run his arm through any postgame tests. No fracture, no foul.
All in all, the quarterback was in good spirits. He ended his unit's 16-game streak of touchdown-free first quarters, he survived two ghastly interceptions and some second-quarter booing from the home crowd and, of greatest consequence, he improved the Jets to 2-0 before their critical road swing through Oakland, Baltimore and New England.
Sanchez was also lucky enough to be sharing the same field with Luke McCown, good for four interceptions and a passer rating of 1.8, the worst ever managed against a Jets defense. Cold Hand Luke came across as a complete incompetent in a league placing a premium on high-level quarterback play like never before.
All the more reason Ryan never should've endangered Sanchez's health. The drop-off from the first string to the second at the quarterback position is the biggest drop-off in sports. Brunell used to be a big winner in Jacksonville, but now he's an older, left-handed version of Luke McCown.
Sanchez can't be lost for more than a game or two for the Jets to keep their win-it-all-or-else season alive. Sunday, the quarterback ran the ball for 29 yards and took a couple of hard shots along the way, including one on the sideline from former teammate Dwight Lowery, who was flagged for 15 yards.
As it turned out, Rex Ryan was guilty of unnecessary roughness, too. He actually sent out Sanchez for one more play after the Roth takedown, a first-down handoff with less than nine minutes to play before the quarterback gestured for Brunell to come out and face his former team.
Sanchez made it off the field in time for Nick Mangold's sprained ankle to remain the most troubling injury of the day.
"If it was up to Mark," Ryan said, "he'd stay out there the whole game."
That's why it isn't up to Mark. It's up to Rex. The head coach did a dumb thing for a dumber reason when he failed to protect the one Jet he can't afford to lose.
Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." Sunday Morning with Ian O'Connor can be heard every Sunday, 9-11 a.m., on ESPN New York 1050.