Leave it to the Jets to turn a quarterback change into a multiple-choice controversy.
To make it worse, Ryan muddied an already complicated situation by refusing to cite his reason for bypassing Tebow, whose NFL resume is far superior to that of McElroy.
"I can answer this question a million ways -- frontward, backward, sideways, anything else," Ryan said late Tuesday in a conference call with reporters. "It's my decision and I based it on a gut feeling or whatever. Everything it comes down to is, I believe it's the best decision for our team. That's the only factor that goes into these decisions."
It was the biggest decision of his head-coaching tenure, raising questions about the futures of Sanchez and Tebow, who are signed through 2016 and 2014, respectively. It also could impact Ryan's own future.
Ryan insisted it was his call, and that owner Woody Johnson didn't force him into it. As recently as late last season, Ryan said Sanchez would be his quarterback for as long as he was the coach. The Jets (6-8), eliminated from playoff contention with Monday night's 14-10 loss to the Tennessee Titans, could face major changes in the offseason.
Sanchez played horribly in the game, throwing four interceptions. In fact, the Jets' last three possessions ended with a Sanchez turnover inside the Tennessee 26-yard line -- two interceptions and a fumbled snap in the shotgun. He leads the league with 24 turnovers -- an NFL-high 50 over the past two seasons.
Things got worse after the game for Sanchez, who received a series of death threats from one disgruntled fan on Twitter. League spokesman Greg Aiello said the NFL's security staff was aware of the man's threats and was working with the Jets to assist on the matter. The team declined comment through a spokesman.
Ryan was seething after the game, according to players. He didn't even wait until they got home from Nashville before breaking the news to Sanchez, who was benched for the first time in his career.
"In dealing with it, I told Mark, 'I think we need to make a change,' and he respected my decision," Ryan said. "That's not easy, that's for sure."
It can't be easy for Tebow, either, who was acquired by the Jets last March to ostensibly be the No. 2 quarterback and run their Wildcat package. So far, he's had only a minor role, fueling speculation Ryan never wanted Tebow and that it was the brainchild of Johnson. Monday night was the first time he played a full series at quarterback.
Ryan refused to be drawn into an explanation on why he didn't give the job to Tebow, who won eight games last season as the Broncos' starter, including a playoff game. It's possible the coaches don't want to revamp the offense this late in the season to suit Tebow's unconventional style.
"I'd rather not look at what's behind me. I'd rather look what's in front of me," said Ryan, deflecting a Tebow question. "I'm going to put Greg out there. In my opinion, it's best for our team."
The Jets, concerned about potential criticism for bypassing Tebow, actually mulled a scenario in which Tebow would be the nominal starter, with McElroy receiving the bulk of the snaps, a source said. By mid-afternoon, however, Ryan told McElroy the job was his.
Ryan's decision to start McElroy is curious because he didn't deem him worthy of being active in Monday night's must-win. Instead of McElroy, Ryan dressed six wide receivers and watched as Sanchez threw away their playoff hopes.
Ryan declined to say who will be the No. 2 quarterback against the Chargers, although he's leaning toward Tebow, a source said. It's hard to believe, but Sanchez -- once considered the face of the franchise -- could be dropped to No. 3.
The players were off Tuesday, and weren't available for comment.
Sanchez was given a reprieve after being pulled from their Dec. 2 win over the Arizona Cardinals. McElroy, active for the first time in his career because of Tebow's rib injury, came off the bench and rallied the Jets to a 7-6 win.
After taking three days to mull his quarterback decision, Ryan re-committed to Sanchez, letting him know he wouldn't tolerate turnovers. He had only one turnover in an ugly win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, but he reverted to his old ways against the Titans.
"It doesn't feel good to hurt your team like that," a demoralized Sanchez said after the game, adding, "I'm not playing well enough for us to win."
It's unclear how the benching will impact Sanchez's future with the team. He signed a contract extension last March, through 2016, and is due an $8.25 million guarantee in 2013. It means he probably will be back in 2013, although it's hard to imagine him in a starting role.
Sanchez was on top of the city after helping the Jets to back-to-back appearances in the AFC Championship Game, winning four playoff games in his first two seasons. But it began to spiral downward last season for Sanchez and the Jets, who have slipped to mediocrity -- only 14-16 since the second AFC title game.
The former USC star played poorly down the stretch last season, yet still received a three-year contract extension, through 2016, even though he had two years remaining on his first contract -- a miscalculation by general manager Mike Tannenbaum.
After a brief, ill-fated flirtation with Peyton Manning, the Jets wanted to demonstrate their commitment to Sanchez. They converted a non-guaranteed $6 million salary in 2013 into a guaranteed $8.25 million -- and now they're stuck with him unless they do the unthinkable and eat the money. That also would result in an enormous salary-cap hit -- $17.1 million if they release him.
Sanchez has been hampered by a revolving cast of receivers, partly because of injuries, and a change in coordinators. He has regressed under Tony Sparano, who was hired after last season to replace Brian Schottenheimer. The Jets are ranked 30th in total offense and 28th in scoring offense, having been held to 10 or fewer points in six games.
He hit rock bottom Monday night.
"He had, obviously, a poor day," Ryan said. "He wasn't alone with that. We can't turn it over five times and expect to win. Has he had better days than that? Absolutely."
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.