PHILADELPHIA - SEPTEMBER 02: Mark Sanchez #6 and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer of the New York Jets look on during a preseason game against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field on September 2 2010 in Philadelphia Pennsylvania.. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
There seems to be something of a debate among Jets fans about whether Mark Sanchez's inconsistent play or Brian Schottenehimer's play calling is more responsible for stalling the Jets passing game. I think Schottenheimer's play calling is a problem, but he cannot get a free pass on Sanchez's lack of development. Player development is a critical part of coaching.
It would be one thing if Sanchez played like Kellen Clemens every week. It is pretty clear that Clemens does not have what it takes to be a successful NFL quarterback. No amount of coaching could change that. Sanchez is different. We have seen flashes of brilliance from him. It is obvious he has talent. He has delivered some incredible performances in high stakes environments. The guy can play. He just does not do it well consistently.
To what extent does coaching matter? Type in a good search for "Alex Smith Jim Harbaugh." Harbaugh has Smith playing at a high level when Smith was previously thought of as mediocre. The 49ers are not a high flying passing team, but they are getting very efficient quarterback play from Smith. How much of it is Harbaugh? Just read some of the articles.
You will see that Harbaugh broke down Smith's mechanics from taking the snap to his release point and drilled into him the proper way to do things. No other coach had been able to do that for Smith.
You will see how Harbaugh changed hot routes for Smith. In case you do not know, a hot route is something an offense runs when it anticipates blitz. The idea is for the quarterback to get the ball out quickly before the blitz gets to him. The receiver's route changes as a result. He adjusts his route to run into the space vacated by the blitzer. If the left outside linebacker is a blitzer, the receiver's hot route will take him into the area that linebacker would be if he was not blitzing. Instead of forcing Smith to make reads and make the calls himself, Harbaugh has built designated hot routes into each play. No matter where the pressure comes from, the hot route is predetermined once the play is called. Is it foolproof? No, sometimes the hot route will take the receiver into a covered area instead of the open space since the call was predetermined when the play was called instead of adjusting to what the defense is doing. This has worked for the 49ers, though. Smith always had a reputation for being jittery and indecisive. Harbaugh saw this so he built an offense where Smith knows exactly what his reads are in any situation and where he needs to go with the football. That is developing a quarterback.
Let me give you another example. It is Chan Gailey in Buffalo. While I am skeptical of his ability as a head coach, I think Gailey has a good offensive mind. Look at what he has done with Ryan Fitzpatrick. Even if Fitzpatrick was playing over his head early in the season, he has been effective the past two years in Gailey's system. Gailey built an offense that allows Fitzpatrick to make quick reads and get the ball out quickly. Those are his strengths. The coach is getting the most out of his quarterback.
What do the Jets do? Back in 2009 they gave
Sanchez a color coding based on the game situation about times to avoid risks. Essentially the answer to Sanchez making mistakes was telling him not to make mistakes. That's like telling a struggling pitcher in baseball to throw strikes.
When Sanchez makes a mistake, the tendency has been to throw less risky short timing routes. That's not Sanchez's strength, though. Those throws are weaknesses. He is not a precision passer at this point. There are plenty of other safe throws the team could call in those situations that Sanchez is better at making. We do not see those, though.
It's tough to find coaches who know enough and have the work ethic to do things like what Harbaugh does with Smith. There are not many out there. If the Jets are going to continue to go forward with Sanchez, they are no less going to need to find a guy like him who will build an offense around his quarterback's strengths and really work to eliminate his weaknesses. It's one thing to say a quarterback has good receivers and a good run game. If the system is not designed to take advantage of this, these things really do not matter much. I think we have seen enough out of Sanchez to continue this. The other options are not terribly attractive. We have been down the road of trying to catch lightning in a bottle with a veteran with Brett Favre. Starting back at square one with a rookie would pretty much put the team back to 2009. Finding a seasoned mentor for Sanchez is the easiest path.