When Mark Sanchez and the first-team Jets offense struggled to post any significant production this preseason, the murmurs of concern about New York's second-year franchise quarterback began building as a team expected to go places appeared ready to stall upon takeoff.
And when Sanchez and the Jets sputtered to just six first downs and nine points in a humbling stadium-opening Week 1 loss to the visiting Baltimore Ravens on Monday night, a one-point defeat that failed to mask one of the uglier offensive performances in the Jets' long and mostly tortured history, the what's-wrong-with-Sanchez talk percolated to full boil on the NFL's front burner.
Now, with New York and its 2009 first-round pick facing another formidable challenge almost immediately in the form of the revitalized New England Patriots (1-0) this week at New Meadowlands Stadium, full-blown crisis mode will undoubtedly descend upon the Jets should Sanchez endure a second confidence-shaking showing at home inside of a week. Not to mention the hit New York's Super Bowl intentions will take if it falls to 0-2, with all those sobering statistics that annually accompany that particular negative benchmark.
Having breathlessly set the stage with that over-the-top description of the precipice that Sanchez and the Jets already find themselves in Week 2, my intent this week was to take a little deeper look at the factors plaguing Sanchez's game and by extension transforming New York's offense into an unrecognizable version of the unit that played winning football for 2½ playoff games last January. What I heard from the NFL experts I spoke with can be distilled to one predominant theme: In playing it safe with Sanchez, the Jets' conservative approach on offense is playing into the hands of the defense.
"It's way too early to be jumping off bridges in New York, and let's keep in mind that Sanchez happened to play against one of the best defenses in the league in the Ravens on Monday night,'' said NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock. "Having said that, and I watched that game pretty closely, I think there's a trap that you can fall into as the New York Jets, when you have a defense that's so dominant. The trap is, 'We're great on defense, and because of that we're going to play conservative on offense.' I get running the ball first, and the ground-and-pound thing, and that may be good enough to beat 80 percent of the teams in this league. But four or five times a year, you're going to run up against teams that are as good as you are, and your quarterback has to make some plays.
"I think the difference in the game Monday night was (Baltimore's) Joe Flacco took some shots and made some plays downfield, and from the Jets there was never anything approaching any kind of vertical attack on the Ravens corners, which is their weakness given their injury situation. Maybe two or three times they threw the ball 12 or 13 yards downfield. That's the trap of playing great defense and ground and pound on offense. Your young quarterback who didn't play all that much in college has got to develop, and he's got to take some chances down the field, or you're not going to beat the best teams in this league.''
For Sanchez and the Jets offense, the results against the Ravens were staggeringly bad. New York was just 1 of 11 on third downs (with that lone conversion coming on its final drive), with 176 yards of offense, six first downs, and only 44 total plays resulting in a meager 21:28 time of possession. Sanchez finished 10 of 21 for 74 yards passing, with a 56.4 passer rating and a miniscule 3.5 yards per pass attempt. The Jets' six first downs were their fewest in a game since December 1976.
"You're not going to win a lot of games with those numbers,'' Mayock said. "But in some ways, by only losing by a point despite all of that, unfortunately the result is it only re-enforces their theory that you can play defense and ground and pound and get by. The reality is the only way to beat good teams is to let the kid make some plays. One of the things I really like about the kid (Sanchez) is I don't think he's afraid to make a play. He's aggressive by instinct and wants to take shots down the field. However, he's playing like he's afraid to make a play. And as any athlete will tell you, the worse thing you can do is to think too much.''
On the surface, the Jets offense and coordinator Brian Schottenheimer exhibited perfect play-calling balance against Baltimore. New York ran 21 times for 116 yards (5.5 average), and threw the ball 21 times for those 74 yards. And when you factor in Sanchez being sacked twice by the Ravens, and scrambling twice for 5 yards, the Jets' play calls were actually 25-19 in favor of passing.
But that doesn't tell the whole story. When you choose to throw the ball in the NFL is also vitally important to your success. In Sanchez's case against Baltimore, nine of his pass calls came on third down, the hardest down by far to throw on in the NFL. Six of those were on 3rd and 5 or longer, and all told Sanchez was of 1 of 6 on his third down throws, for just nine yards, with two sacks for minus-14 yards, and a 6-yard scramble that did not get the first down. That's a recipe for defeat in almost any league.
"I think he's in an offensive conundrum,'' ex-NFL quarterback turned ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer said of Sanchez. "They think they're making it easier on him by playing conservatively and spoon-feeding him, but they're actually making it harder on him. It's not hard to throw the ball on first and second down in the NFL. There are a lot of opportunities to get completions and yards. A lot of average quarterbacks can do that. But to throw on third down is pulling teeth.
"They need to make it easier for him to throw on third down, by letting him throw more on base downs (first and second down) to get into better throwing situations. He's not getting a lot of what I call freebie opportunities on first downs, throws that help you develop a rhythm, and get your receivers involved.''
Excluding the Jets drive inside the game's last two minutes, when New York trailed and was forced to throw on earlier downs, Sanchez had just 11 pass play calls on either first or second down against Baltimore. The Jets called a running play -- including direct snaps to Wildcat formation quarterback Brad Smith -- 18 times on either first or second down. That's simply not a winning ratio in today's NFL, league experts said.
"When everybody in the stadium knows Sanchez has to throw it (on third down), it's tough, real tough,'' one veteran club personnel man told me this week. "They've got to give him some easy throws on first downs, because you can't be facing third-and-7 all day. The Jets got in the habit last year of playing small ball, with defense and a running game, but if they're going to go where they want to go, they're going to have to diversify.
"You have to score more. You have to score in this league to win. Look at last year's Super Bowl teams (the Saints and Colts). Both of them threw it 40 times a game. You just have a hard time consistently putting nine- and 10-play drives together. Against the Jets, teams know they're not going to get beat against them over their heads right now. Without that kind of threat, people are willing to say, 'Hey, let's see if they can execute.' The other night they weren't able to.''
Dilfer believes that when receiver Santonio Holmes returns from his four-game NFL suspension to start the season, Sanchez and the Jets offense will be better equipped to challenge a defense vertically. Holmes is an excellent perimeter receiver who catches the ball well even in tight coverage, and the threat of him outside should create more space inside for the likes of receivers Braylon Edwards and Jerricho Cotchery.
"They have a formula that works once Holmes is back,'' Dilfer said. "But when you have that ground and pound approach on offense, you better have a passing game that complements that thinking. If it's a running game supplemented by a short passing game, it doesn't work. It's not going to fit together. I have not seen it done successfully in my time in the NFL. A run-first mentality is usually in concert with an aggressive vertical passing game, because if you're not taking many opportunities to throw the ball, you need to maximize your big-strike capability when you do throw it.
"The run-first thing, pounding the rock, shortening the game and protecting the defense is a great way to play football. If you support it with the vertical passing game. But that lack of complementary offensive approach is killing Mark right now. Defenses really only have to protect the 20 yards in the middle of the field against the Jets right now.''
Like Dilfer, Mayock sees the potential for the Jets' formula for victory being the real culprit if New York does not make good on its Super Bowl aspirations in 2010. Simply put, can a defensive-oriented team win enough of the battles to consistently win the war against the league's best offenses?
"I think the Jets have t come out in the game plan this week against New England and say we've got to be more balanced,'' Mayock said. "Especially on first downs. If you win the first two downs in the NFL, you win on third down. They've got to let Sanchez win some first downs. When you run the ball as well as they do, you should be able to throw the ball on first down, with play-action. If they let him use his ability to win first down, it'll open up some of the rest of the game for him.
"But I keep coming back to (Jets head coach) Rex Ryan, like his father (Buddy Ryan) is a defense guy. And that's OK, but historically there's a trap there, because really only team in the history of the NFL has won a Super Bowl with a dominant defense and a very average offense, and that's the (2000) Baltimore Ravens. It's only happened that one time, and if Rex wants to win a Super Bowl that way, it is going to be like pulling teeth.''
If indeed the Jets are guilty of taking a backwards approach to offense in the NFL, circa 2010 -- still trying to run first to set up the pass, rather than passing early in order to provide more options later -- it will have a negative impact on the rate of Sanchez's development as an elite quarterback, league experts said. The sooner the Jets can transfer more of the offensive burden to Sanchez's shoulders, the better, in order to keep pace in the pass-first NFL. But given that New York feels its time is now, and it's Super Bowl or bust this year, that makes for a highly pressurized atmosphere for Sanchez in just his second season. Especially given his relative lack of collegiate playing experience (just 16 career starts at USC).
"He's on a team that has high expectations, not just an offense with high expectations,'' Dilfer said. "And because of that, being a second-year quarterback, he's being coached to not make mistakes. When you're being told what not to do, rather than what to do, there's a huge disconnect between the typically aggressive approach of a quarterback and the conservative approach of the message you're getting. It's about trust. When you don't trust your quarterback, you call the game conservatively.
"But I don't see a regression in his game. I see a guy with (35) starts in his college and pro career. I think he's as good a prospect as we've seen in a while, but it's going to take some time. Very few players have immediate success or reach people's expectations right away. The raw football analysis tells me he's going to be very good. But the problem is, with the system he's in, it's going to take him longer to progress. And that's tough, because the expectation level is so high for the Jets this year.''
Patience with Sanchez is going to be in ridiculously short supply if the Jets lose on Sunday to the Patriots, in the process falling two games behind New England in the AFC East race. But patience has to be part of the equation with New York's quarterback, said former Bengals, Jets and Cardinals quarterback Boomer Esiason, now an NFL analyst for CBS.
"Everyone's got to just calm down,'' Esiason said. "One of the issues with the Jets is they have a major problem at left guard (where second-year man Matt Slauson has replaced departed Pro Bowl starter Alan Faneca). At one of the significant points of the fourth quarter Monday night, it was (Ravens defensive tackle) Haloti Ngata coming through Slauson and sacking Sanchez. The Jets decided to go without guys like Faneca and Thomas Jones this year, and those guys are battle-tested veterans who have been through the wars. Now you're replacing them with young guys who don't have a track record of fighting through the kind of adversity the Jets had as a team Monday night.
"So in response, a coach is going to be conservative and not take chances. Go vanilla with the game plan. But if they want their bonus baby quarterback to be the quarterback they know he can be, they have to let him go through the wars and take some lumps. And they have to let him throw the ball down the field, and attack the defense more than he did the other night. The Jets never did that. They never attacked. Maybe because they were worried about who the hell was blocking Ngata.''
Esiason said the NFL today is a league built on over-reaction, so he wouldn't be surprised if the Jets come out against New England and throw on 10 of their first 12 snaps, in an effort to get Sanchez untracked and boost his sagging confidence. But as we prepare to watch Manning Bowl 2 Sunday night in Indianapolis, Esiason said he couldn't help but think this week of how many critics Giants quarterback Eli Manning had before he led New York on that miraculous playoff run to the Super Bowl in 2007. Sanchez's detractors would do well to recall how quickly the conventional wisdom changed regarding the younger Manning.
"I still believe in Mark Sanchez, and it's way early to be panicking about him,'' Esiason aid. "I always remember Eli's early years here in New York and how my own radio partner in town called him 'Aw, shucks,' because they were always talking about his demeanor, his body language, his lack of leadership. They were even getting into, 'Well, he was raised by his mother, not his father.' It was crazy.
"People forget you're talking about the hardest position in all of sports to master. It takes a while. It takes some time, and in this league that's always in short supply. All this nonsense going on. They've got 15 games to go this year. And he's a kid. He's a baby. They don't know what they don't know. And the only way they learn it is by going through the fire. He did it some last year, throwing all those picks. But he came back and led his team to the AFC title game. So he's done it, and I've seen him do it. And he can do it again.''