And they were so entertaining! Ryan did all this with his trademark bluster, making the Jets more fun to watch than those boring old Giants and their elderly coach, Tom Coughlin, who seemed more likely to hand out Werther’s Originals than F-bombs. Ryan’s strategy has always been to make a big fuss of himself to take the pressure and spotlight off his players—to play the clown so that they can concentrate on the tasks at hand—and the media, grateful to have such a quote machine talking to them for half an hour every day, ate it up. Ryan was forever guaranteeing championships and claiming that his players were better than everybody else’s, which didn’t just keep the Jets in the papers but also had the side effect of making his players love him. As long as he kept winning, the party would never stop.
The problem was Sanchez. After those first two seasons, he stopped getting better. (This had been forecast by statistical analysts like Football Outsiders, which warned that Sanchez’s win-loss record was not indicative of his talent level.) He was roughly the same quarterback in 2011 that he was in 2010, except for the added unpleasantness of five more interceptions, absolute killers for a team that relies on ball control. A three-game losing streak to end the year, which included seven Sanchez picks, doomed the Jets to their first season out of the playoffs since Ryan took over. The season ended with star receiver Santonio Holmes in open revolt against his quarterback.
The Jets briefly flirted with Peyton Manning in the off-season—it would be more accurate to say they looked at Manning, and he ran away screaming—and, with a surprisingly small amount of attention, extended Sanchez’s contract to 2016. (Though the deal is easily ended with little to no penalty to the Jets after next season.) It was a vote of confidence in a quarterback who had perhaps not done enough to earn it, one the Jets have been accused of coddling. Just a few weeks after that extension, the Jets, stunning everyone (including, reportedly, Sanchez), traded for Tim Tebow. It was an all-in publicity move. Tebow’s arrival brought with it the slavish, creepy stalking of ESPN and more attention than even Ryan had ever managed. Ryan, doubling down, invited ESPN’s cameras to document the Jets’ training camp live—a curious move, considering Ryan had moved the Jets camp, when he first took over, to upstate Cortland to minimize distraction—and the die was cast. The Jets were the most hyped team in NFL history before they’d even played a game. You could sense the whole league cheering for them to lose.
Ryan, perhaps in reaction to this backlash (he has insisted since the trade was made that Tebow was a backup first and a backup only), has hitched his whole wagon to Sanchez, and this year, it’s been a disaster. Sanchez has reached his nadir, to the point that his frequent claims that he still has confidence in his abilities are beginning to feel vaguely Iraqi information minister. Sanchez has completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes in half the Jets’ games this year, and has killed several drives with red-zone turnovers. Combined with the Jets’ injuries on defense—especially the season-ending injury to cornerback Darrelle Revis, arguably the best defensive player in the league—the team has lost its margin for error. Every Sanchez mistake is now fatal.
In any other town and on any other team, Sanchez would be on the bench. But Ryan, backed into a corner by his claims that Sanchez is his guy, is stuck. Ryan has responded, in fact, by increasing the bluster, hollering just last week that the Jets would make the playoffs. Suddenly, Ryan was not the charming, blathering, slobbering crazy uncle everybody loves; he was the angry relative at Thanksgiving who refuses to believe President Obama won the election. This season, Ryan has gone from Joe Biden to Karl Rove.
Can Ryan survive this debacle of a season? Can he go from the new face of the Jets to just another guy representing the decades of futility without being shown the door? It now seems, as the years have gone by, that the Rex Ryan we all loved, the one who came in with a plan to change everything, may have had only one trick. That strategy relied on a healthy defense and a quarterback who didn’t make you worse. Ryan and the Jets now have neither. It’s possible Ryan survives this season, but to turn it around, he’s going to have to make dramatic changes—changes he’s shown no propensity or desire to make. Is he ready to give up on Sanchez? To start Tebow, and see what happens? Will he fire first-year offensive coordinator Tony Sparano to send a message? If not, it’s difficult to see how Ryan rights the ship.
For years, Ryan has entertained us and made us believe that there was something behind his bluster, that he knew what he was doing. And maybe he did. Maybe it’s not his fault that Sanchez has turned out to be so terrible. But this is where we are, and it’s going to be tough to recover. This might be over. Let’s go eat a goddamn snack.