Just one game separated the New York Giants and the New York Jets’ 2011 regular season, but it was a big one. By beating the Jets 29-14 on Christmas Eve, the Giants finished 9-7 and went on to the playoffs in a sensational run that culminated in a Super Bowl win. The Jets finished 8-8 and got nothing.
The Giants got the victory parade and limousines. The Jets got the clown car.
That’s the way the New York sporting media saw it—the cartoon on the front page of the Sept. 4 New York Post has Giants quarterback Eli Manning driving a snappy Giants convertible and his teammate waving their Super Bowl trophies while Jets coach Rex Ryan and quarterback Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow, resplendent in clown makeup, ride alongside in a Jets golf cart.
Well, one week into the 2012 NFL season, it’s the Jets who are smiling and the Giants who look like Emmett Kelly. Big Blue flopped in their season opener, losing 24-27 to their hated rivals, the Dallas Cowboys, while the Jets shocked the Buffalo Bills 48-28. Shock may seem like an overstatement, particularly since the Jets were favored by 4 points, but the way they won left jaws throughout the NFL dropping.
All week long Rex Ryan had blamed the New York media for the “circus”—his word—surrounding his team. This was clown talk, and Ryan knew it. It wasn’t the media who brought in the most over-hyped quarterback of the century, Tim Tebow, to New York to compete for a starting spot with the second most over-hyped quarterback of the century, Mark Sanchez.
Pro football teams often wind up, through no fault of their own, with a quarterback controversy when the No. 1 man suffers an injury and then tries to win the starting job from his replacement. But no team seeks to create a quarterback controversy—what would be the point?
But that’s exactly what the Jets did when they dealt for Tebow, the Heisman Trophy-winning Christian warrior whose on-the-field genuflections turned him into a Fox News poster boy. What, many asked, was the point in taking on a second signal caller when last year’s GQ cover boy, Sanchez, after two years of nearly leading the Jets to their first Super Bowl since Joe Namath in 1969, was recovering from a dismal 2011?
The obvious answer seemed too cynical to be true: Tebow, long before he took a single snap from center at MetLife Stadium, was a guaranteed financial windfall for the team. Within two weeks of the announcement that he was coming to New York, Jets jerseys with Tebow on the back outnumbered Sanchez shirts by 2-to-1.
In addition to moving merchandise, the “Who Will Start at QB?” angle provided the New York press, cable TV and radio talk shows, and Internet sports sites with almost daily fodder. By the time the preseason rolled around, every sportswriter, blogger, and fan had an opinion about which man would be the starter: Sanchez, the better passer, or Tebow, the quarterback who ran with the fury of an ace running back. The only thing anyone could be sure of was that the Jets’ offense simply couldn’t work with two quarterbacks shuffling in and out of the lineup.
Some college football programs have been successful with a two-quarterback scheme. Florida won a national championship in 2006 alternating Tebow with a passer named Chris Leak. But you can’t make that work in the pros. College students don’t belong to a union, and the coach can make them practice for hours on end. In the NFL, practice time is limited, and it’s virtually impossible for two quarterbacks to have the same command of a team’s playbook.
In the weeks leading up to the start of the season, Ryan and his staff stated openly that Sanchez was their No. 1 man and Tebow the backup but then confused matters by not telling the press which QB was getting the most practice. They further confused matters by talking openly about “special packages” that were being created specifically for Tebow; i.e., plays meant to take advantage of his running ability when the Jets were inside an opponent’s 10-yard line.
Predictably, the Jets’ preseason was a mess with Sanchez playing the first half and Tebow most of the second. They lost four games and were outscored by the horrendous margin of 31-88, with the only Jets touchdown scored in 16 quarters of football a pass thrown by the third-string QB, Greg McElroy. The “special packages” prepared for Tebow were never seen in the preseason; Ryan told a skeptical press that he didn’t want Jets opponents to get a preview of what they were planning.
And so some bewildered Buffalo Bills coaches discovered Sunday that there were no “special packages” or trick plays and that what the Jets had been working on in the offseason was how to pass and run block with better efficiency—for Mark Sanchez. The crowd at MetLife Stadium broke into loud cheers as both Sanchez and Tebow took the field together with Tebow lined up as a receiver. But Sanchez didn’t throw to him but to a rookie receiver named Stephen Hill. A couple of plays later, with Tebow at quarterback, Sanchez moved out on the flank as a wide receiver, But Tebow didn’t throw, he handed off to running back Joe McKnight, who went for a short gain.
After screwing with the Bills coaches’ heads on the first series, the Jets settled into a steady diet of bread-and-butter passes by Sanchez, most of them quick two- and three-step drops where he fired to receivers running slant patterns, hitting them on the run. On second possession, Sanchez completed a drive by firing a 12-yard pass to new receiver Jeremy Kerley for a touchdown.
Sanchez was just getting warmed up. Early in the second quarter he hit Hill with a perfectly thrown TD pass over the middle, and in the third quarter he led the Jets 66 yards, culminating in a 17-yard scoring strike, again to Hill. It’s too early to make any definitive season, but so far it looks like the difference between the Jets’ offense this year and last year is the kind of jackhammer offensive blocking that no quarterback can be successful without.
When it was over, Sanchez had had perhaps the best day of his NFL career, completing 19 of 27 passes for 266 yards. Tebow, meanwhile, proved on the field to be simply a distraction. He was on the field for 12 plays, nine of them with the offense. He didn’t throw a single pass and didn’t carry the ball from scrimmage. His most important contribution was recovering an onside kick while playing with the special team.
Last season Sanchez was the most knocked-down quarterback in the league; against Buffalo he wasn’t sacked a single time. And on the other side of the ball, Jets defenders were knocking the Bills down with ferocious regularity. As Buffalo coach Chan Gailey left the field, he was asked if, after all the hype about a special game plan, anything the Jets did surprised him. “Yeah,” he growled, “they blocked and tackled very well.”
It’s a long way from clown car to Super Bowl limo, but Jets fans should be encouraged that their coaching staff seems to understand that the Lombardi Trophy isn’t won with tricks or gimmicks but with blocking and tackling.