There have been some epically horrible quarterback battles throughout NFL history, but it's tough to think of one worse than the one going on with the New York Jets. Rex Ryan has been vacillating between Mark Sanchez and Geno Smith throughout the preseason, weighing whether he can get anything out of Sanchez in his fifth season, or if it's time to punt on that experiment and let Smith, 2013's second-round pick, learn on the job.
After three games, all Ryan knows about his situation is that he has no quarterback ready to start an NFL game in a competent fashion. Smith, whose progression has been limited by injury, threw three howling picks in the first half of Saturday's 24-21 overtime win over the New York Giants, and capped off his first NFL start by running out of the end zone in the fourth quarter as he was being chased by Giants linebacker Mark Herzlich. This play, of course, brought to mind what former Detroit Lions quarterback Dan Orlovsky did in his first NFL start in October of 2008. In what may have been the most face-palming moment of the 0-16 Lions' season, Orlovsky forgot where he was and bailed out of his own end zone.
Smith did throw a first-quarter touchdown to receiver Ben Obomanu in the first quarter, but other than that, he looked overwhelmed — and it didn’t help that his receivers were dropping balls and allowing Giants defenders to out-muscle them in space. Smith ended his game with 16 completions in 30 attempts for 199 yards, that one touchdown, those three picks, and a safety in what seemed to be the most embarrassing play of the night.
Until, that is, Sanchez came in to spell Smith with 11 minutes left in the fourth quarter — a move that didn’t make a lot of sense. He was playing behind a backup offensive line, and that’s not generally how you want to treat a possible starter making $8.5 million in base salary this year. He was sacked by defensive tackle Marvin Austin on his first play, and later threw a pass in the general direction of backup right guard Caleb Schlauderaff. This, of course, continued Sanchez’s affinity for right guards, best personified by the “Buttfumble” that happened last Thanksgiving evening against the New England Patriots when Sanchez ran into the butt of then-right guard Brandon Moore, and promptly lost the ball.
And as one might have predicted would happen when a team puts a balky quarterback behind a backup line, Sanchez got hurt on the second play of his second drive when he threw to receiver Mohamed Massaquoi and took a hard shot from Austin. Sanchez was down on the field with a shoulder injury, and he eventually walked to the locker room with his right (throwing) shoulder wrapped. Matt Simms then came in for the Jets, who probably looked best on offense at the end of the first half, when running back Bilal Powell was taking direct snaps.
The Jets won after botching a late-game field goal not once, but twice, after Tom Coughlin called timeout as Nick Folk missed the potential game-winner. Folk missed the following kick and the game went to overtime. Coughlin tried to ice Billy Cundiff in overtime, but his luck ran out as Cundiff’s field sailed wide on a play that didn’t count. Following the timeout, Cundiff drilled the game-winner.
Smith is an inexperienced player at this level, and few would mistake Sanchez for anything approaching a top-tier NFL quarterback, but the blame for this debacle should be placed firmly on the shoulders of the Jets' coaching staff. Putting Sanchez in the game under those circumstances was a ridiculous move, and the team may now be dealing with the worst-case scenario.
Then again, when it comes to their quarterbacks, what else have the Jets had in their recent past?
"That was a coach's decision -- that was my decision all the way," Ryan said after the game. "You're talking about competing all week, you're talking about winning a game, and that was my decision. He was 5-of-6 passing, he looked decent, he had the fumble (of a snap), and the unfortunate injury, but it was my decision to let him go in the game ... We're there to win. We had our starters out there for the first three quarters because we're trying to win the game. We're trying to compete, and everybody's out there. Injuries are part of the game." Pressed repeatedly by the media to say where he was in the Smith-Sanchez battle, Ryan said over and over that the decision would be made at the appropriate time. At one point in his postgame press conference he said that he could answer the question any way he wanted, and turned sideways at the podium to answer it from a different angle.