Jets sending Sanchez mixed message

The New York Jets' flirtation with Peyton Manning has created the irony of ironies. Rex Ryan, who admitted after the season he was blind to the locker room unrest that undermined his team, said he learned a hard lesson and vowed to clean up the problems.

But he could be exacerbating the situation by letting his incumbent quarterback twist in the wind.

Let's face it, Mark Sanchez's stature in the locker room took a hit at the end of the season, and there's concern within the organization that his ability to repair it could be comprised by an ill-fated run at Manning. If the Jets don't sign Manning -- sources say they're not one of the frontrunners -- Sanchez will return to a locker room that may not look at him the same way.

Fair or not, he'd be perceived as The Fallback Guy.

Evidently, Ryan and GM Mike Tannenbaum are willing to take that risk, which tells us one of two things: They believe Sanchez is tough enough to handle the ramifications or they don't give a damn because they're desperate for Manning.

"If you're going to flirt with a guy, you have to make sure you get him -- or it could backfire on you," one source said.

If you're Sanchez, what must you be thinking? A few minutes after Manning hit the waiver wire, around 4:40 p.m.
Wednesday, the Jets placed a call to his reps to express "cursory" interest, one source said. It smacks of desperation.

Sure, the Jets have said nice things about Sanchez in recent weeks, saying they expect him to be their starting quarterback, but it all sounds like lip service given the infatuation with Manning. After going steady with the same person for three years, the Jets appear willing to break it off for what could end up being a one-night stand.

"I think the Jets would go down the road if there were mutual interest," one league source said.

If they miss on Manning, the Jets, of course, would shift into serious damage control, trying to paint Sanchez as their one and only. Look at Antonio Cromartie, they will say. You remember that: The Jets threw themselves at free agent Nnamdi Asomugha, lost him and turned their anxious eyes to Cromartie -- aka Plan B.

But it's apples and oranges because the Jets were able to ease Cromartie's hurt with a four-year, $32 million contract. Plus, he's a cornerback, not a quarterback. The quarterback is the leader of the team, and he needs to have the support of the higher-ups to have the support of the guys in the locker room.

The Jets have a person in their building who knows this deal better than most -- offensive coordinator Tony Sparano.

A year ago, the former Miami Dolphins coach played the Sanchez role, awkwardly sitting around as his star-chasing owner -- Stephen Ross -- tried to hire Jim Harbaugh.

Ross whiffed, a very bad whiff. It was a public relations disaster and it undermined Sparano's authority, which not even a contract extension could repair. It's no wonder the Dolphins started 0-6, which is why Sparano now works for the Jets.

Looking at the Manning sweepstakes, the Jets have more to lose than the six other teams reportedly in contention. That's because Sanchez has won more games and has built up more collateral than any of the other incumbents sweating out a possible Manning arrival.

Of the six other incumbents -- Matt Moore, Matt Cassel, Tim Tebow, Kevin Kolb, Rex Grossman and Tarvaris Jackson -- only one has won a playoff game with his current team. And that's Tebow, who has one postseason victory. Sanchez has four.

For his part, Sanchez seems to be preparing for the season as if he's the guy, Peyton speculation be damned.

By now, most people know Sanchez spent time recently in South Florida with Chad Pennington, picking the former quarterback's brain on the Sparano offense. What you probably don't know is that Sanchez made more than one trip to Florida for a total of five study sessions with Pennington -- two hours apiece.

Say this for Sanchez: He's trying. But now his employer is sending a mixed message: We love you kid, but ...

"If they don't get Manning, what are the ramifications of living with Sanchez?" one source asked. "The cat is out of the bag."

Ryan may have more fixing than he anticipated.