CORTLAND, N.Y. -- The tabloid-ready Mark Sanchez-Tim Tebow quarterback drama that everyone wants to make the New York Jets 2012 season all about misses the point. Or at least half the point.
Tebow isn't a Jet because New York coveted his passing arm. When the Jets choose to throw this season, Sanchez will deliver it the vast majority of the time. That much is all but certain. But it's New York renewed commitment to the running game, a re-emphasizing of its once-vaunted Ground and Pound attack, that will be the real story of the season in Rex-ville. And how that goes will determine just how much Tebow's role cuts into Sanchez's playing time and whether there will be a quarterback controversy at some point.
After all, it wasn't Tebow's left arm that so memorably beat the stunned Jets 17-13 with a late 95-yard touchdown drive on a Thursday night in Week 11 last season in Denver. As you'll recall, that victory seemed to ramp up Tebow-mania to a new level of frenzy, and it was what Tebow did with his legs that fully got the attention and admiration of Jets head coach Rex Ryan. Tebow had seven carries for 58 yards during the game-winning drive, none bigger than the 20-yard touchdown burst around left end with 58 seconds remaining, when he ripped through a Jets defense that seemed to want no part of a 250-pound runner on that pivotal 3rd-and-4 play.
I'm convinced that play, that touchdown, that galling New York loss, went a long ways toward making Tebow a Jet today. The Broncos improved to 5-5 that night and eventually went to the playoffs with Tebow leading the way. The Jets dropped to 5-5 with the loss and eventually missed the playoffs for the first time in Ryan's three seasons on the job, as their locker room dissolved into dysfunction and their offense lost a good bit of its winning, run-first identity of 2009-10.
"The fact that he beat us and we couldn't defend him, absolutely, that certainly didn't hurt the equation,'' Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum told me the other day, discussing the team's decision-making in the Tebow acquisition. "When the quarterback is a threat as a runner, it's hard to defend. It was a philosophical decision. We want to be a tough team, and be able to be game-plan specific with what Tim does best. It was like adding another club to our bag at a reasonable price. It doesn't mean we always have to use that club, but it's there.''
It's there all right, and how it's used this season is going to receive a bit of scrutiny. Down to a microscopic level. But focusing solely on the Sanchez-Tebow dynamic overlooks the Jets' really big move of the offseason, the hiring of new offensive coordinator Tony Sparano.
The ex-Dolphins head coach was quickly snapped up by Ryan in an attempt to reclaim the type of hard-nosed approach to the running game that helped New York lead the NFL in rushing in 2009 and finish fourth overall in 2010 -- results that coincided with the Jets reaching the AFC title game both years. Last year, under since-departed offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, New York's muddled approach produced a running game that averaged just 3.8 yards per carry (tied for 29th), and only 105.8 yards per game (22nd).
Ryan still doesn't know exactly how his 2011 Jets lost the offensive identity he talked so long and loudly about his first two seasons, but he knows they did. And he's determined to make that a one-year trend, with Sparano's top priority being a restoration of the Jets running game as the foundation of the offense.
"I think we did lose it,'' Ryan said. "Whether it was because we were behind, or what it was, I'm not sure. But that's something that clearly jumped out about last season. We struggled in the preseason running the ball and we struggled early in the season. We finally got it going a little bit as the year went on, but clearly for our team, the best thing for it is to run the football. Or to at least have the ability to run, so that teams know you'd better be careful against us. You'd better defend the run, because if you don't, we will run it. We have to be able to impose our will on defenses with our running game. We have to be able to run the football even when they know we're going to run it. That's when you know you have an excellent football team.''
The Jets, Tannenbaum said, made poor decisions last year in terms of how to best utilize their offensive personnel. This is the modern-day NFL. You have to be able to pass, and pass effectively, to win big. But the Jets convinced themselves that aging receivers Plaxico Burress and Derrick Mason had to have major roles in their offense, and that drew focus and carries away from running backs Shonn Greene, LaDainian Tomlinson and Joe McKnight. With disappointing results.
"We initially went into the season thinking with Derrick Mason and Plaxico that our best personnel was one back, one tight end and three receivers,'' Tannenbaum said. "Over the course of the season we did evolve back to the running game, but at the beginning we kind of felt our best personnel was going in a different direction. In hindsight it wasn't the right decision.''
At a recent Jets training camp practice I attended, it was Sparano's distinctive bellowing voice that dominated the proceedings on the field. Barking instruction, encouragement or criticism, Sparano has everyone's attention at all times. His task is to re-establish the Jets' tough-guy persona, and the ex-Cowboys offensive line coach has enthusiastically thrown himself into the renovation project.
"I understand why Rex hired me and what he's looking for,'' Sparano said. "What we're trying to do here is get a physicality, and a mentality that when people watch us, it's not a case of
"I wasn't here in the past and I'm not really concerned about that part of it. But everything we do, it starts with physicality in the running game. What we want is when people play the New York Jets, they line up against our offense and know it's going to be a physical football game.''
If you don't think Tebow will factor significantly into that return to a style of physicality in the Jets running game, you either haven't been paying attention or you were in a coma and missed all of last season. The threat he poses with his legs and his ability to muscle his way through tacklers is one of the primary reasons New York was interested in his unique and controversial skill package.
And of course, Sparano brings the Wildcat offensive formation that he helped make an NFL sensation back in 2008, when he led the Dolphins to a surprise AFC East title in part by utilizing running back Ronnie Brown in that direct-snap quarterback role. The Jets used receiver Brad Smith effectively in the Wildcat in 2009-10, but he signed with AFC East foe Buffalo in 2011, indirectly opening the door for Tebow this year.
Tebow will get plenty of work in the Wildcat in New York, as well as the read-option formation he thrived in (sporadically) last year in Denver. Earlier indications are that he will be featured in red zone situations mostly, but given his success at times in Denver throwing deep patterns (Tebow had three passes of at least 40 yards in one quarter of the Broncos' wild-card round upset over the Steelers, one more such throw than Sanchez completed all season), I wouldn't be surprised to see him challenging a defense vertically on play-action calls. Second-round receiver Stephen Hill of Georgia Tech is a speed threat who will be asked to stretch the field as a rookie.
"When we made the [Tebow] decision, obviously I talked to [Jets owner] Woody [Johnson],'' Tannenbaum said. "But it was Tony Sparano, Rex and myself in the room. It was a football decision. Coach Sparano had coached him in the Senior Bowl and obviously ran a Wildcat with success in Miami, and Rex from the day he walked in the door as a head coach, with his defensive acumen, always referred to it as 11-man football, where the quarterback is a threat as a runner. So from a football standpoint, I'm looking to my left and I'm looking to my right and for really different reasons, they weren't scared of him.
"For a guy who has three years left on a contract, and may have been the best college football player of all time, we just felt the price of the trade was reasonable and bringing Tim in here could really help our offense.''
The Tebow factor aside, Sparano's main focus in the running game will be coaxing a career year out of Jets lead running back Greene, who despite being productive last season (1,054 yards, 4.2-yard average carry) didn't seem to be able to churn out the big yards at the biggest moments, or take over late in games the way he did during his rookie season of 2009. Greene, who is entering the fourth and final year of his first Jets contract, will have the opportunity under Sparano to prove he's New York's present and future at running back.
Ryan said he didn't think the Jets did a good job of blocking downfield for Greene last season, citing the departure of receiver Braylon Edwards as a contributing factor to that decline. "Braylon was a big part in the way we blocked down field,'' Ryan said. "We actually would motion Braylon in and run behind him, like a tight end. I think you're going to see us get back to that. That's a New York Jet thing. That commitment to blocking downfield. That's going to help Shonn.''
But Sparano makes it sound as if re-energizing Greene's game will be as easy as giving him the ball. Early, often, and religiously. According to Sparano, Greene just needs more work, and he defends his 2011 season by pointing out that Greene averaged 79.1 yards in the season's final 12 games, which Sparano said ranked fourth in the league over that span.
"This guy is a big physical back, and he's built the way I like them, a low-to-the-ground, move-the-pile guy,'' Sparano said. "With Shonn, I have a feeling this guy gets lathered up the more times he touches the ball. He carried the ball a lot in college [at Iowa]. That's the type of back he is. The most important thing I try to talk to him about, because of the way we want to use him, is to make sure you take care of your body. It's a long season, and we're going to use you. That's how we get his game to the next level.''
All of which is music to Greene's ears, with his next contract just around the corner. And the Jets offensive line, which includes the likes of Pro Bowl selections Nick Mangold at center, D'Brickashaw Ferguson at tackle and Brandon Moore at guard, likes the renewed run-first mentality, too. What offensive linemen doesn't love to run block, moving forward instead of backward in pass protection?
"We're a team with a great defense, a physical defense, and a physical-minded coach,'' Moore said. "You want to be able to run the football, and we have the personnel to do that. But saying you're going to Ground and Pound and run the ball doesn't mean you're not going to throw the football. We'll throw it plenty. But to get our identity back of being a physical, tough-minded team, a team with attitude, you've got to be able to run the ball. It's a welcomed change around here. You don't feel tough or play like a tough team if you're slinging the ball all over the place.''
With Tomlinson retired after two seasons in New York, the Jets will ask Joe McKnight to add to his kickoff return duties, filling the speed-back role and posing a receiving threat out of the backfield. And young runners like second-year veteran Bilal Powell and rookie Terrance Ganaway may contribute in complementary roles. It's up to Sparano to find ways to employ them all, giving opposing defenses a host of different looks and packages to contend with in stopping New York's running game.
If the plan holds this season, nobody will be used more creatively than Tebow, New York's high-profile backup quarterback, punt protector and X-factor extraordinaire. But my guess is we'll be talking about his running a lot more than his passing in 2012, and the same might go for the entire Jets offense this year. There seems to be no daylight between Ryan's and Sparano's mentality on the direction New York is headed.
"It's funny, but when we were researching our options at offensive coordinator, Rex and I spoke to Anthony Lynn, our running backs coach, who had been with Tony in Dallas,'' Tannenbaum said. "I said, 'Anthony, in 30 seconds or less, what is Tony Sparano?' He said 'He's Rex Ryan on offense.' And that could not be more accurate. He's tough, he's demanding, he's funny and he's fair.
"Of all the things we did this offseason, I think as much as anything, Tony is going to make a huge difference. Not just on our offense, but our football team, because he sees the game from the eyes of a head coach.''
So it's time to Ground and Pound again in New York. Even if Tebow Time and the back-page circus has arrived, for Mark Sanchez, it's the Jets' recommitment to their running game -- and not his celebrated new teammate -- that might wind up being his best friend.