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What kind of QB does Rex really want?
Much has been made of the "fact" that Rex Ryan's ideal game plan is for the offense to get out of the way and let his defense win the game. The common perception is that Rex would prefer to run the ball nearly every play, only pass when absolutely necessary, and limit passes to high percentage short stuff with limited chances of turning the ball over. This is the conventional wisdom. It is also, I think, dead wrong.
Let's look at the evidence. First, Rex comes aboard in 2009, Jets have no viable QB options, so what do they do? What would you do if your goal is to have a grind it out, play it safe type of offense, limit turnovers and hand the game to the defense to win? Doesn't that sound like a situation tailor made to bring in a low risk game manager veteran QB to run the show, and develop a mid round QB to be the future game manager for Rex's beloved defense? Wouldn't a coach in love with his defense spend his inaugural first round pick on a defensive game changer? Wouldn't that have made the most sense, if Rex wanted the kind of QB he is accused of wanting? But what actually happens? Rex decides to use half his draft to trade up, not for a defensive stud for his beloved defense, but for a swashbuckling gunslinger type QB prospect with little experience who is almost guaranteed to generate massive numbers of turnovers if he starts.
So will he start? Rex enters camp with a so-called "open" competition between Kellen Clemens, an uninspiring QB who is nonetheless much superior to Mark as a game manager and in limiting turnovers. Rex concedes he has a favorite going into camp but will not reveal who that favorite is, though anyone with half a brain knows it is his new rookie stud, Sanchez. Unsurprisingly, the rookie gunslinger wins the competition over the veteran game manager, even though it is almost a foregone conclusion that Sanchez will create far more turnovers than Clemens. Does that sound like a coach that wants a game manager at QB?
As the 2009 season wears on, Sanchez proceeds to do the utterly predictable thing and turn the ball over at an alarming rate, while occasionally also making big plays and clutch throws. Over the first 10 games of the season, Sanchez commits a horrific 19 turnovers, yet Rex continues to allow him to throw the ball, averaging a respectable 27 passes per game over that stretch. Only when the losses really begin to pile up, reaching 6 losses in 7 games by the 10th game of the season, does Rex throw in the towel and completely take the air out of the ball, throwing 19 times or less in 5 of the last 6 games, and not coincidentally losing only 1 game in that stretch, the one game where Sanchez threw more than 19 passes. At no point, even when the Jets were losing 6 of 7, does Rex pull the plug on his gunslinger, the worst starting QB in football, and put in Clemens to try and win with a game manager, a running game and a dominant defense. He sticks with Sanchez, despite terrible results.
Fast forward to 2010. Sanchez, now in his 2nd year, cuts down on his turnovers, turning the ball over only 14 times all season, and the Jets win, alot. But Sanchez is still not an effective game manager, and he is not an accurate passer, still finishing near the bottom of the league in passer rating. What he does reasonably well is go deep, to Braylon and Tone. Rex lets Sanchez throw a league average 34 passes per game. Bottom of the league QB, middle of the league pass attempts - does that sound like a coach who just wants a game manager to not screw up the game for his beloved defense?
In 2011, it becomes even more clear that Rex is looking for Mark to grow into a QB who wins games with his arm, rather than just tries not to lose them. Rex opens the year averaging 37 passes per game for the first 4 games, above league average, but starts to scale back as Mark turns the ball over a ridiculous 9 times in those first 4 games. Still, Rex continues to lean on Mark to become a QB who can carry a team, rather than just a game manager. For the year Sanchez again averages 34 passes per game, again at league average, despite again being among the worst QBs in the game, and ballooning to 26 turnovers on the year. If Rex wanted a game manager, why would he allow a turnover machine like Sanchez to continue to pass the ball at a league average rate?
Finally we come to 2012. Over the first 8 games of 2012 Sanchez throws 272 passes, a rate of 34 passes a game, despite once again being just about the worst starting QB in the NFL. Over that stretch Sanchez turns the ball over 13 times. Only when the turnovers become unbearable, occurring 13 times over the last 6 games, does Rex finally pull the plug on the Sanchez experiment. Despite 3.5 years of abysmal QB play and league high turnover numbers, Rex stuck with Sanchez, and threw the ball at an average NFL rate. Why? Well, one answer is there was nobody else other than Clemens and Brunell in the first 2 years. While that is true, it doesn't really fit the profile of a coach who just wants to manage the game and limit turnovers. Both Clemens and Brunell would have done a better job than Sanchez at managing the game and limiting turnovers. What Sanchez brought to the table was a certain moxie, and a big play ability clearly lacking in Clemens, Brunell and McElroy. What Rex craved was a big play offense, and he was willing to pay the price of turnover machine Sanchez to try to develop it.
The point when this was really driven home for me was at halftime of this year's Houston game. We went into halftime down 17-7. Sanchez had just made yet another critical error to close the half, driving the Jets all the way down the field on a beautiful drive only to have the ball intercepted at the goal line and returned 86 yards to set up a Houston FG to close the half. What looked like a 14-14 tie going into the half was turned into a 17-7 deficit with a disastrous Sanchez turnover in the red zone. The Jets jog off the field, and a sideline reporter corrals Rex for an impromptu interview. The reporter asks a single question: what do the Jets need to do differently in the second half? What does Rex answer? You might think given the horrible turn of events in the last seconds of the half and Sanchez's 4 year propensity to turn the ball over, Rex would say something like we just need to make a few corrections and take care of the football. Any coach who wants his QB to just not screw up the game for his defense would have uttered some iteration of that answer. So what does Rex say? What is the response of the coach who supposedly just wants his QB to manage the game and play it safe? Rex gives a very brief response. He says, we have to take more shots down the field in the second half. And that's exactly what the Jets do, repeatedly burning the Texans' secondary with deep passes and almost pulling out the game.
That response, and that second half, tells you all you need to know about what kind of QB Rex wants. He wants a gunslinger. He wants a QB who can go vertical, to complement the power running game. He wants to force the safeties to creep up into the box to stop the run, then burn them with downfield throws. Rex wants a big play offense with a big play QB. He's even willing to live with a very high level of turnovers to develop that kind of attack, as he did with Sanchez. Unfortunately, Sanchez delivered the turnovers, in alarming numbers, but he never developed into the playmaking gunslinger Rex craves. Rex wanted something like Brett Favre. Unfortunately, he got something like Mark Sanchez, and that one fateful happenstance may well cost Rex his job. If Rex does indeed lose his job, you can credit one final turnover to the arm of Mark Sanchez.