FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) — Rex Ryan is as loyal as an NFL coach possibly can be, and his decision Wednesday to stick with Mark Sanchez at quarterback was the logical move for now.
Staying with Sanchez has its pitfalls, too, and Ryan could be staking not only Sanchez's future with the New York Jets on what happens in the final four weeks of the season, but his own job security.
"It's one where I obviously have to get this decision right, and I believe I have," Ryan said, exuding confidence but — as the coach of a 5-7 team — maybe not his signature bravado.
Ryan's benching of Sanchez on Sunday against Arizona was done not just to rescue the Jets from another embarrassing defeat. It was done to deliver a message to the only starter Ryan has had for nearly four seasons, since both he and Sanchez arrived with the Jets.
"The thing we have not done a good job of is protecting the ball," Ryan said. "Mark is the obvious guy we are talking about."
The strategy worked two ways. Third-stringer Greg McElroy made his NFL debut a successful one, leading the Jets to a 7-6 win. And Sanchez say he got the message was delivered and understood.
"I know I can play better and it's time to prove it," Sanchez acknowledged. "I put myself in a tough spot and it's time to work my way out of it."
That chore begins Sunday at Jacksonville, but clearly this is not a one-game project. The ramifications of keeping Sanchez as the starter will have a long-term effect on the franchise.
After leading the Jets to the AFC title game in his first two seasons, Sanchez has regressed as a passer and as a decision maker. Never was that more apparent than in the victory over the Cardinals, and Ryan finally pulled him for the untested McElroy late in the third quarter, to loud cheering from the home fans.
Yet Sanchez has never had someone to truly challenge for his position and, even now after perhaps the worst two-game stretch of his career, he remains the Jets' only viable option.
The Tim Tebow experiment has been an utter failure as the Jets have found no way to make use of him in their offense. The flutterballs he throws, his inability to find secondary receivers and the limited play selection for him all have made Tebow a virtual nonentity — and now he has broken ribs.
McElroy was outstanding at Alabama, leading the Crimson Tide to a national championship. But he's raw and has little familiarity with the starters on offense because he gets virtually no snaps during the week's practices. He provided a spark against Arizona and could do so again, but making him the No. 1 QB at this point is a reach.
Going with Sanchez, albeit on a short leash, is not.
Of course, it will need to be an improved and wiser Sanchez.
"Sometimes you learn from when you're put in that position, when somebody goes in," Ryan said. "And sometimes it's as easy as you step back and see somebody else in that role. He hasn't really had that before. I think sometimes you learn a great deal from that."
Ryan had better hope that's the case, because his loyalty to Sanchez could backfire on the coach. They've never been more inextricably tied together.
Sanchez is owed $8.25 million in guaranteed money for 2013 as part of a contract extension the team gave him last March after failing in a short pursuit of Peyton Manning. Ryan certainly had a hand in that decision.
Until now, Ryan never has wavered in his support of Sanchez, even when it became obvious the quarterback wasn't progressing the way other fourth-year QBs such as Matthew Stafford and Josh Freeman had. Ryan recognizes that the contract extension and having no real competition for Sanchez left him with few choices that wouldn't smack of panic.
Ryan is hoping Sanchez finds his way even though he is working with the least-talented group of teammates he's had with the Jets. New York lacks a No. 1 receiver with Santonio Holmes sidelined — some say Holmes isn't a No. 1, either — and the rest of his targets are young. Running back Shonn Greene wouldn't start for most teams, and his backups are a nondescript bunch. The line has been in a slump for nearly two seasons.
Those issues are not Sanchez's fault; they lie with personnel decisions made by management, including Ryan.
What is Sanchez's responsibility is executing on the field, both mentally and physically. He's shown little adeptness in either area this season.
"We are where we're at. I can't go back and change anything," Sanchez said. "My job is to play well for the guys in this locker room and for a head coach who believes in me."
A coach who believes so much in him that he might be staking his own job on that faith.
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