EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- After throwing interceptions on three of the New York Jets' first four series, Mark Sanchez deserved to finally play his way out of the quarterback job Sunday. The only real intrigue left is whether Sanchez's follies will eventually take head coach Rex Ryan out with him.
For most of the first three quarters Sunday -- or until Ryan made the game-saving decision to play backup quarterback Greg McElroy -- the offense was playing so badly against a freefalling Arizona Cardinals team that had lost seven straight, it felt as if the Jets might not win another game all season.
The Jets were that disastrously bad. So Ryan did what he had to do, and he benched Sanchez. Then Ryan, not surprisingly, said he was going to take a bit more time to decide whether he was committing to McElroy as his new starter. But that should be just a formality, given the past seven quarters of football Sanchez has played -- first the massacre on Thanksgiving against New England, and now his 10-for-21, 97-yard, three-interception mess Sunday -- as well as Ryan's explanation for why he pulled the quarterback he urged the Jets to trade up for in the 2009 draft, in his first big call as head coach.
"When you're around this game long enough, you get that feeling that, 'I've seen enough,'" Ryan said.
McElroy was the Jets' next man up Sunday because their alleged No. 2 quarterback, Tim Tebow, was inactive with cracked ribs. (This though Ryan again admitted after the game it was a coach's decision; Tebow was medically cleared to play.) When McElroy finally got the call to come in with 4:48 left in the third quarter, or two quarters after the home crowd began chanting his name, he immediately led the Jets to their only touchdown of the game -- a 10-play, 69-yard march -- after not taking a single rep with the first-team offense all week.
Then the Jets' defense made it stand up for a 7-6 win against a Cardinals team that fell to 4-8 and was starting a quarterback of its own, rookie Ryan Lindley, who was only marginally worse than Sanchez was.
Ryan isn't facing just a quarterback controversy now. He's facing the biggest crossroads of his head coaching career. Sticking with McElroy is a no-brainer, really. What's unclear is whether making the switch will be enough to save Ryan's job, or just offer more proof of how the Jets have devolved in his four seasons here.
Even if Jets owner Woody Johnson wasn't inclined before this game to contemplate a sweeping regime change of his own -- out with Rex, out with general manager Mike Tannenbaum, out with Sanchez as his franchise quarterback, even if the Jets just foolishly lavished him with a contract extension that will pay him $8.25 million next year -- Ryan has to know the Jets were on the way Sunday to turning in the sort of unforgivable performance that could've moved Johnson to reconsider.
And Johnson still might have to yet.
Expecting McElroy, a seventh-round draft pick from Alabama who had never played a regular-season NFL down until Sunday, to correct all that ails this Jets team in the four games they have left might not be enough of a sea change, either.
The Jets' receivers are still the same mediocre ones that Sanchez had to throw to. The Jets' running game -- like the quarterback position -- is now a three-headed muddle in which Shonn Greene, Bilal Powell and Joe McKnight alternate series. So much for that Ground & Pound attack that was supposed to be the Jets' calling card all season. Thinking Greene could be a franchise back has been just another of the many, many miscalculations Tannenbaum and Ryan have made.
Who will pay for it beyond Sanchez remains an open question. But more heads are sure to roll.
Ryan conspicuously left out his offensive coaches as he lavishly praised his defensive coaches for the game that unit played. And Johnson made it clear he wasn't thrilled with the direction the entire team has been heading a few weeks ago after some anonymous Jets ripped Tebow as "terrible," and Johnson not coincidentally surfaced to speak to reporters at practice.
Johnson said he was unhappy with the Jets' record, 3-6 at the time. And that was before the Jets were trounced by the Patriots in a national showcase game that Johnson had lobbied hard to land, only to see the Jets add the ignominious term "butt fumble" into the NFL lexicon when Sanchez forgot a play he just called, ran into one of his own linemen and lost the ball to the Pats.
That play was pure slapstick. From the start Sunday against Arizona, Sanchez played as if he was still in a fog. He didn't play with the desperation or energy or conviction of a man determined to keep his slipping grip on his job. He started badly, only got worse and -- most damningly of all -- looked, not for the first time in his career, like a quarterback who had fallen down and couldn't pick himself up. The circumstances demanded he rise up. Instead, he wilted.
Until now, McElroy's most notable moment as a Jet was going on the radio last offseason and ripping the "toxic" atmosphere in the Jets' locker room by the end of the 2011. But unlike Sanchez, McElroy at least throws off a little swagger. When asked Sunday if he noticed the MetLife Stadium crowd roaring when he entered the game, McElroy smirked a little and shot back, "Well, I mean I didn't have a decibel meter."
"He gave us a spark," Jets veteran offensive lineman Brandon Moore allowed.
Sanchez had given the Jets only more of the same. His first interception to ex-Jets safety Kerry Rhodes on the opening series of the game was bad. But his second pick, in which he missed tight end Jeff Cumberland, was even worse because two Cardinals actually had a shot at that ball before Rhodes came up with that one, too. (Rhodes also later forced a fumble, not a bad day for a former Pro Bowl player who Ryan ran off after becoming Jets head coach, and then later ripped as everything from soft to "selfish.")
In Sanchez' 10 series, the Jets scored zero points. It didn't help that Nick Folk missed two field goals by hitting the uprights.
So get ready for the McElroy era to start. But don't be surprised if the results look very much like Sanchez's past season or two. McElroy is smart. He's also greener than grass.
The Jets' problems run far deeper than who their starting quarterback is. But changing quarterbacks is the easiest place to start.