Common wisdom says that Rex Ryan thinks Mark Sanchez represents the best chance for Rex to keep his job. The thinking is Rex trusts the veteran over the rookie, and Rex can't afford for the team to suffer a rookie QB's growing pains. Since Mark has a better grasp of the offense, common wisdom is that Rex wants Mark to start, and only Mark's injury thrust Geno into a starting role, a role Rex would have preferred to avoid.
I don't know what Rex thinks. But I'm pretty sure if he in fact is thinking along the lines set out above, he is dead wrong. Let's take a look at the circumstances surrounding Rex's QB decision, and perhaps you will come to agree that Geno represents the only realistic chance for Rex to save his job, even if Mark is in fact the better QB this year.
Let's begin with a couple of assumptions. First, let's assume that this team is not good enough to secure a playoff spot or even a winning record if the QB, whomever he is, plays at the level of Mark Sanchez throughout his entire career, other than the first half or so of the 2010 season. Second, let's assume that Rex needs to show improvement on some level in order to retain his job past the current season. Third, let's assume Idzik has not yet made up his mind to fire Rex. That last assumption may well not be true, but if it isn't then there's nothing further to talk about; regardless of who the QB is, Rex is a goner. So for the sake of discussion let's assume the decision has not yet been made. If you can agree with those three simple assumptions, let's see where they take us.
First, let's look at what we might expect to happen if Mark Sanchez starts at QB. We have already established that, barring substantial improvement by Sanchez, this team is not good enough to show much improvement over last year's record. Sure, there is the small possibility all the bounces go the Jets' way, the team suffers no major injuries, multiple players surprise on the upside, and some of the Jets' key competitors surprisingly drop off. In other words, there is always the possibility the Jets get extraordinarily lucky and somehow manage to pull off a miracle playoff run despite how bad a QB Sanchez is. It is possible, but it is highly unlikely. If that unlikely circumstance fails to materialize, then GM John Idzik is left with a coach who stubbornly clung to a QB option whom he should have known was not capable of competent play, and as a direct result the Jets showed little or no improvement. Idzik's decision in such a case seems inevitable - Rex needs to go. So if Mark starts, Rex's job very likely depends primarily on an extraordinary run of luck.
So what about Geno? What if he starts? This is where the common wisdom falls apart in my view. The conventional narrative is because Geno is a rookie he will struggle. That much I agree with. But the conclusion from this is that when Geno inevitably struggles, the Jets will not show improvement in their record, and thus Rex will inevitably be fired. My question is, why? Why would Idzik or any reasonable person hold the head coach to the same standard when trying to change the team's fortunes with a rookie QB as they would when said coach stubbornly clung to a known failure?
Most of us here can see that Mark will very likely never achieve minimal competence at the QB position, much less something approaching the top half of the league. Surely if we can see it, Idzik can too. So if you are John Idzik, which QB would you want to start? You have just been hired; your job is likely as secure as it will ever be. So you can afford to take a longer view. And the longer view clearly favors trying something new. Continuing along the same failed path is not a viable option. So why would you then hold Rex accountable for the failures of a rookie QB whom everyone in the organization understands [a] represents the only realistic hope for long term improvement at the all important QB position, and [b] is all but certain to struggle mightily at times because he is a rookie? Such a stance defies logic. Idzik knows Sanchez is not the long term answer at QB. Geno may or may not be, but Mark is certainly not. Under the circumstances the only logical choice is to play Geno and see what he's got. Yet despite Geno being the only viable option, Idzik will somehow hold it against Rex for starting the rookie when Geno struggles, as everybody knows he is likely to do. Is that a reasonable stance? If you're John Idzik, would you prefer Rex stays with the known failure, or goes with the possible long term answer? And if you would go with Geno, would you then hold it against Rex when Geno struggles? I can't imagine doing so.
In short, Geno buys Rex time and breathing room. If he struggles, well, a rookie is expected to struggle. A 5-11, 6-10 or 7-9 record with Geno at the helm, particularly if the season ends with Geno showing improvement and the Jets going on a little run against the weakest part of the schedule, might represent hope that greater things are soon to come with our promising rookie QB. That might well satisfy the improvement requirement we made in the assumptions set forth earlier. Contrast that with an identical record with a struggling Sanchez, which would represent no improvement and no hope, but merely more of the same mediocrity and almost certain doom for Rex.
Certainly if Geno is appallingly bad, much worse than even Sanchez, and the Jets completely collapse, it would be difficult to argue that the Jets showed any improvement, thus Rex would likely lose his job. But given that we have already seen how much stronger and more accurate Geno's arm is compared to Sanchez, I would guess the likelihood of him performing significantly worse than Mark's already terrible standard is not very great. Possible, but not very probable. If he's anything close to as good as Mark, Geno gives the Jets hope for the future, which in itself represents improvement, if only in outlook, while Mark gives us only dreary expectations of more of the same. That might be enough for Rex to remain in place. And if Geno manages to perform better than the standard Mark has set, then we would expect the Jets to show improvement in the actual record. That may or may not be enough of a reason for Idzik to stick with Rex, but it certainly presents a stronger case for it than sticking with Sanchez and achieving the same old level of mediocrity.
There is also the issue of flexibility and the ability of a head coach to change when things are clearly not working. Imagine you are Idzik. You come aboard and have a year to evaluate the person directly under you. That person has a decent track record, but has shown a few weaknesses, one being a certain stubborn, set in his ways approach to the offense and the QB position. What would you want the coach to exhibit in the current season to make a favorable impression on you? If it were me, I would want him to bring in an experienced offensive coordinator with experience running a successful and modern pro offense. Rex did this. I would also want him to be flexible enough to embrace change at the QB position in light of the consistently bad play the team has received for the entire span of the coach's tenure with the same failed QB. Certainly that level of flexibility might not be enough if my evaluation of the coach in various other areas leads me to believe he is not a viable long term answer. But the failure to show such flexibility would almost surely doom him in my eyes. I attempted to present him a viable new option to replace his failed QB, and he blithely ignored my chosen alternative. So Sanchez represents a certain fatal lack of flexibility, while Geno represents the opposite. Again, it might not be enough, but playing Geno certainly seems like the safer move from Rex's perspective.
The bottom line as I see it is this. Rex may already be doomed, barring a supremely unlikely deep playoff run. If so, which QB he chooses is irrelevant; that deep playoff run is unlikely with either guy. But if Idzik is keeping an open mind, and if Rex has an ounce of common sense and decent political instincts, there is simply no upside to Rex's job security by having Sanchez play. If Rex still has any hope of keeping his job, he must provide the organization a reason to hope for the future. And the only reasonable alternative at QB to provide that hope is Geno. Barring a wildly improbable run of good luck, Sanchez is near certain death for Rex's career. Geno, on the other hand, provides a decent possibility of improvement. It may be a slender reed on which to hang one's career, but in the choice of a slender reed or no reed at all, Rex would be crazy to choose no reed at all. And whatever else Rex is, he is not crazy.
The injury to Mark made the decision moot for the moment. But assuming Sanchez's injury does not wind up placing him on the injured reserve list, eventually Mark will return and the decision will present itself again. When that time comes, there is only one logical choice for a coach looking to save his job. That choice is Geno.