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Mark Sanchez, Geno Smith stay neck-and-neck (for better or worse) in Jets' QB race

Mark Sanchez threw a costly pick-six, but was otherwise sharp for the Jets. (Leon Halip/Getty Images)Mark Sanchez threw a costly pick-six, but was otherwise sharp for the Jets against the Lions. (Leon Halip/Getty Images)

DETROIT -- The expectations for Mark Sanchez this season probably are too low. The ones surrounding Geno Smith definitely feel too high. And that's about where the New York Jets' quarterback derby is, no closer to the finish line than it was before a 26-17 preseason loss to the Detroit Lions on Friday night.

The Jets seem prepared to take this little battle the distance, potentially right up until the regular-season opener against Tampa Bay. The Sanchez-Smith conundrum was not even priority No. 1 for coach Rex Ryan here -- he said he was so focused on coaching up the defense that he missed most of Sanchez's first quarter pick-six and saw Smith only in limited spurts.

Perhaps that approach is further indictment of Ryan's coaching approach, but the truth for the Jets was that neither Sanchez nor Smith was going to run away and hide from the other in one evening. Certainly, that held true.

"Other than the one crappy play, it wasn't too bad," said Sanchez of his performance. How many times have we heard that tale? A couple of interceptions here, a fumble there and what could be a promising game turns into another forgettable outing. Such was the case, again, in this Jets loss. Sanchez actually finished with solid numbers: 10-of-13 passing for 125 yards, a pretty touchdown pass to Jeff Cumberland and a 99.8 QB rating.

He also buried the Jets into a hole from which they never recovered, inexplicably lobbing an attempted screen pass right into the arms of Detroit rookie Ziggy Ansah, who returned the gift for a touchdown.

It's that sort of "crappy play" that makes it hard to notice when Sanchez shows his talent. For what it's worth, he came back from the brutal pick-six and completed nine of his next 10 passes, including all five on the Jets' lone first-half touchdown drive.

"The interception ... we have can't that," Ryan said. "(Sanchez) made some nice throws under pressure, which was good to see. We would have liked less pressure, but he handled it. He led our team down the field (after the interception), so that was encouraging."

Those momentary meltdowns from Sanchez continue to be troublesome mainly because the Jets keep expecting more. Even though Sanchez has proven himself an entirely average QB over his first four seasons, the belief remains that somehow, some way, tomorrow will be better than today.

The difference as the 2013 regular season approaches is that the Jets have another hope. It comes from Smith, their second-round pick in April. He declared, in no uncertain terms, the he "played exceptionally well" in this game. The second-round pick finished 6-for-7 for 47 yards, before leaving with a minor ankle injury.

"(I was) making the right reads, the right checks. I was quick with my decision-making," Smith said. "I did a pretty good job getting the ball out to our playmakers."

It's true, there were no glaring errors in Smith's outing. Mostly because he tried his darndest to avoid the type of debilitating mistake Sanchez delivered early. The results of that caution, despite Smith's analysis, was a rather ho-hum outing that hardly gave the impression of someone ready to snatch the No. 1 QB job from the incumbent.

In fact, on the snap in which Smith tweaked his ankle, he lingered in the pocket after a pair of play-action fakes, despite appearing to have at least one receiver available downfield. When Smith felt pressure coming from Detroit's Devin Taylor, he stepped up and took what he could. Considering this was Smith's first pro game, we can chalk that up as a savvy play -- a quality lacking on Sanchez's costly interception, a pass he tried to float to no one in particular over the outstretched arms of the 6-foot-5 Ansah.

An encouraging first effort for Smith? Absolutely. A sweeping declaration that the rook is ready to bump Sanchez to the bench? Not even close.

"All three quarterbacks had their moments," said Ryan, giving a little love to Greg McElroy, who led the team with 145 passing yards. "Everything will be evaluated."

Again, this remains an improvement on 2012, even if a couple of the key players -- namely, Ryan and Sanchez -- remain the same. Then, the Jets boxed themselves into a corner, trying to shuffle between a struggling Sanchez and one Tim Tebow. That plan, to state the obvious, failed miserably.

Smith is a better quarterback than Tebow, both in terms of how he fits at this level and his skill set. Watching him, it is not all that hard to envision him as a viable starter in the NFL for years to come. Of course, the same once was said of Sanchez, and the Jets are still waiting for that prophecy to come true.

Friday marked the umpteenth time in Sanchez's New York career that he did just enough to show that there might be more to him, tucked away under the silly headband and Dave Matthews Band tank top he sported in the Jets' locker room. But it's hard to see the forest for the trees. How can the Jets trust Sanchez to be their guy when, almost inevitably, he's responsible for at least one or two horrid, costly decisions per game?

They probably can't, not if they plan on righting this ship in the near future. So, conventional wisdom is that Smith will wrestle this job away from Sanchez ... and soon.

That changing of the guard did not happen Friday, for myriad reasons, including Ryan's rather indifferent approach to his offense's play. At some point, though, the Jets coach will have to declare a winner in a race that's been rather unexceptional thus far.

The question is: Will either quarterback step up and make that decision an easy one?

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