Mules in Headsets

Photo: Alamy

The NFL, more than any other pro league, is dominated by the illusion of the coach as genius platoon sergeant, the cult of the headset, the notion that a bleary-eyed obsessive can sit in a film room for eighteen hours a day and solve the mysteries of sport. The distillation of all this wisdom is the Plan, devotion to which is essential. If our actual military were as insistent on following the Plan as the faux-­military NFL, we’d still be trying to win in Vietnam.

In other sports, there’s more flexibility; the Knicks essentially fielded eight different teams last season. But in the NFL, making a voluntary lineup change means admitting you were wrong … and when you admit you were wrong, you admit you are weak. Which is how you end up with a league where nearly a quarter of the coaches, betrayed by their Plans, get fired the day after the season ends. Most vividly, this is how you end up with the 2012 New York Jets. The scary part about the Jets’ past sixteen games—and what’s ominous about future ones—isn’t that things cycled out of control. It’s that they went exactly as the team’s brain trust ordained.

The open secret is that Rex Ryan never wanted Tim Tebow on his team. But owner Woody Johnson did. (Quarterback Mark Sanchez joked that Tebow was here for “selling seats, man.”) Ryan and offensive coordinator Tony Sparano said at the time of the Tebow trade last summer that Sanchez was their starter, that there was no controversy, but no one believed them. Unfortunately, they weren’t lying. Once they decided Tebow wasn’t going to play quarterback for the Jets, the Jets never budged.

For all the talk of the Jets having a quarterback problem, that wasn’t the case: The Jets had a Sanchez problem. He had one of the worst years in the recent history of the position and is one of only four quarterbacks since 2000 to post four consecutive seasons of below .05 Expected Points Added, an advanced statistic that evaluates how much a quarterback contributes to an offense. Still, Tebow—whose career QB rating is dramatically higher than Sanchez’s—was deemed Not Starting Material, and the Jets stuck to their guns.

For all his brashness and flop-sweat bravado, Ryan has always been as rigid in his coaching as his more toned-down peers. Sanchez had been the Jets’ quarterback since Ryan took over as coach, and the Jets had won more games during that time than they’d lost, so, dagnabit, Tebow was a distraction foisted upon the team by ownership, while Sanchez was Ryan’s guy. Though Sparano and general manager Mike Tannenbaum have been canned, Ryan has kept his job for another year, and one of the reasons given for his remaining as the Jets coach was “continuity,” the idea that the team isn’t ready to blow things up just yet. Of course, the Jets still owe Mark Sanchez $8.25 million for the 2013 season: He could very well be the Plan for next year as well.

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Mules in Headsets