NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- It's time to pack up the big top. The 2012 New York Jets are done.
Send out the clowns.
After five months of too many distractions and not enough victories, the Jets were officially eliminated from the playoff race Monday night with a 14-10 loss to the Tennessee Titans at LP Field -- another embarrassing defeat in prime time. This time, Mark Sanchez didn't run into a butt and fumble.
No, it was worse. Sanchez tied a career high with five turnovers, throwing away the Jets' playoff hopes with four horrendous interceptions -- including two in the fourth quarter from hell. Now, for the first time in five years, the Jets must confront this frightening reality:
They don't know who their quarterback is.
We're not talking about next week (Rex Ryan was noncommittal after the game), we're talking about next season and beyond. If there was any chance of Sanchez redeeming himself with a late-season playoff run, he ruined it with perhaps the worst performance of his career.
How can they go back to him?
Sanchez got a second chance after his mini-benching three weeks ago, and he blew it. Over and over and over and over, he blew it, throwing reckless interceptions. His interception total ballooned to 17. He leads the league with 24 turnovers.
He was crushed after the game. He looked lost. He looked as though he wanted to crawl away and hide.
"It's disappointing, very disappointing," Sanchez said. "It doesn't feel good to hurt your team like that. It's not a winning formula."
Ryan needs to put Sanchez on the bench for the rest of the season and re-evaluate the quarterback situation after the season. If he doesn't, he will lose credibility in the locker room. Can you imagine the home crowd's reaction next Sunday if Sanchez starts against the San Diego Chargers? It wouldn't be a surprise at all if Ryan turns to Tim Tebow. Or maybe he'll take a flier on Greg McElroy.
That $8.25 million guarantee in Sanchez's contract probably ties him to the Jets for at least another year -- unless they want to eat the money and take an enormous salary-cap hit. At the very least, they have to bring in a quality veteran. That ill-fated contract extension could be the demise of general manager Mike Tannenbaum.
Owner Woody Johnson was in no mood to chat after the game.
"I'll talk to you guys after the season," said Johnson, who usually doesn't talk to us guys unless he shows up to fire somebody.
The game -- the season -- ended in fitting fashion: with bad quarterback play and a mismanaged quarterback situation.
Sanchez (13-for-28, 131 yards) actually got off to a decent start, but he was replaced in the third series by Tebow. It was Tebow's first full series of the season -- five plays and a punt. The plan, Ryan said, was to give Tebow the third series, no matter what.
For the first time, Sanchez wondered aloud about the controversial, two-quarterback system. Asked if it has hindered him this season, he said, "I don't know about that. It's something to look at at the end of the year. I don't have time to worry about it now."
That was a telling comment, his first acknowledgement that maybe the brilliant idea of a Sanchez-Tebow dynamic isn't so brilliant, after all.
To his credit, Sanchez didn't blame his four interceptions on the three-quarterback circus -- a gross miscalculation by the brain trust. They were just bad throws. The fourth was the worst, a pass into triple coverage at the goal line.
The Jets, down four, drove to the Titans' 23-yard line. This was Sanchez's chance to play hero, but he threw off his back foot -- on first down, no less -- to a pack of hungry Titans, looking for Jeff Cumberland.
Miraculously, the Jets got another chance after a three-and-out and a 19-yard punt by the Titans. Ball at the 25-yard line, with 47 seconds to play.
"It's like the football gods wanted to give it to us," guard Matt Slauson said.
Safety Yeremiah Bell said, "That opportunity doesn't come along too often. It was like a gift."
With everything at stake, the Jets failed to execute one of the most fundamental plays in football -- the shotgun snap. Pro Bowl center Nick Mangold fired it low, below Sanchez's knees. He dropped it, like an infielder booting a grounder. Before he could regain possession, running back Bilal Powell -- in pass protection, his back to the ball -- booted it away.
First, the Butt Fumble. Now, the Foot Fumble.
Ryan was exasperated.
"It's all riding on it all right there," he said. "You're still alive, you think you have a chance to win the football game. For that last play to happen, it was about as bad as it gets."
Publicly, no one criticized Sanchez, not even Ryan, who said he was "extremely disappointed" with the turnovers. His teammates didn't question him, but the usual "Mark is our guy" statements were conspicuously absent.
The players know the deal. All they needed was a mediocre quarterback performance to defeat the Titans, who committed 14 penalties for 111 yards, but they didn't get mediocre. They got historically bad.
Ryan called it a "devastating loss," saying "it hurts beyond belief." The real pain could come at the end of the season, when Boss Johnson decides who stays and who goes.
This was a flawed team from the outset. The lack of explosiveness on offense was evident in training camp, one of the rare cases in which the preseason served as an accurate harbinger. The starters failed to score a touchdown, and it turned out to be more than growing pains. The pain never went away.
"I'm not playing well enough to win," said Sanchez, sounding as though he's resigned to a seat on the bench.
Where he belongs.