Rex Ryan and Mark Sanchez?
The tie between the head coach and his quarterback is paramount in the NFL. The Ryan-Sanchez tandem needs to grow together now if the New York Jets want to win a Super Bowl anytime soon.
Ryan and Sanchez are the two most important people in the Jets' organization. If one is failing, both will fail.
Ryan is doing his part. In his first two years as head coach, he's led the Jets to back-to-back AFC title games despite inconsistent play from his starting quarterback.
This was expected to be the year Sanchez, in his third season, made the necessary strides to take the pressure off his head coach and other areas of the team. Instead, Sanchez has been inconsistent, and the Jets are 6-5 with their playoff hopes hanging by a thread.
"I think until he wins the whole thing, he's going to be criticized just like I'm going to be criticized until we win it," Ryan said this week. "That's fine. It comes with the territory."
Ryan needs Sanchez. Sanchez needs Ryan. There's no way around it.
The Jets and Ryan hedged their bets on Sanchez in 2009 when New York traded up to the No. 5 overall pick and made Sanchez its franchise quarterback. Ryan, also in his first season, started Sanchez right away. Including playoffs, Sanchez has made 48 starts and the pair is 29-19 (.604 percentage) together. Sanchez missed one game in his rookie season.
By comparison, Belichick and Brady are 32-13 (.711), McCarthy and Rodgers are 36-11 (.766) and Payton and Brees are 35-11 (.761). The numbers don't seem too far off. But consider that Brady, Rodgers and Brees are the most valuable players for their respective teams. Sanchez, for the most part, has been along for the ride while experiencing growing pains.
Ryan and the Jets will have a hard time winning a Super Bowl unless Sanchez becomes capable of carrying the team.
"I just don't think he's close to being good enough," said Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. "Every step of the way, the Jets had to do things in spite of their quarterback. It shows up all the time.
"But I think the best thing he does is play his best football when it matters most. That's shown in the playoffs, it's shown against the Patriots at times and it shows in the red zone. I think he has those qualities where he steps up and that's tremendous."
Jets fans are getting impatient. It was evident by their constant booing of Sanchez in last week's 28-24 victory over the Buffalo Bills at MetLife Stadium.
Sanchez started last week's game by completing just 8 of 20 passes for 66 yards in the first half. But he woke up later in the game with a clutch, fourth-quarter touchdown drive that potentially saved New York's season. Sanchez was 7-for-9 for 65 yards and a touchdown on New York's final drive.
Ryan gushed about Sanchez after the game, calling him "The Sanchise" and "a stud." He saw a glimpse of what Sanchez could be if he were more consistent.
But, as Williamson mentioned, erratic play and inconsistency are hurting Sanchez the most. He is ranked 30th in Total Quarterback Rating (38.6), which is an indication of the type of season Sanchez is having.
The only starting quarterbacks with a lower QBR are Tim Tebow (34.6), Kevin Kolb (33.1), Sam Bradford (29.5), Curtis Painter (23.4) and Blaine Gabbert (20.2). Players like Tarvaris Jackson (39.0), Colt McCoy (44.4) and Rex Grossman (44.8) are all having better seasons than Sanchez, according to Total QBR.
Sanchez recently admitted he's not playing his best. Sanchez also knows the Jets are a veteran team built to win now and needs him to produce.
"I feel good, physically and mentally," Sanchez told ESPN Radio 1050 in New York on Tuesday. "I'm just so focused [because] I want this to go right, because I don't want to miss an opportunity like this, with this kind of talent and this kind of coaching.
"I'm usually -- 'bubbly' is not the word -- but I smile a lot more. We're short on time here, and there's no time to mess around or smile or even laugh, in my opinion."
Is Sanchez getting too much of the blame? To his credit, Sanchez has already set a career high in touchdowns (18) and is on pace to set new career highs in yards (2,513) and passer rating (80.9). Other areas of the team are failing, particularly on offense.
With the exception of last week, the offensive line has been terrible with run blocking and pass protection. Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer probably is having his worst year calling plays. And Jets running backs Shonn Greene and LaDainian Tomlinson have disappeared for long stretches.
Leaks are springing up everywhere, but this is where franchise quarterbacks lift their teams. Brady, Rodgers and Brees all have kept their clubs in title contention despite injuries and weaknesses in other areas. At least Sanchez has New York's eighth-ranked defense on his sideline. That is a luxury Brady, Rodgers and Brees could only dream of.
"To say he's not going to be Aaron Rodgers is not to say he can't be successful," Williamson said. "But Sanchez has to be a complementary option, where they have the fantastic running game and the defense. He has to be Matt Cassel or Kyle Orton, and to me that’s not good enough for him, especially with the draft pick the Jets used."
Sanchez still has five games remaining to write his story of the 2011 season. The Jets are in must-win mode. If Sanchez gets them into the playoffs and makes another run, most will forget his uneven regular season. Ryan, more than anyone, hopes that is the case.