Let's start with a disclaimer: This will not be a popular column with New York Jets fans.
But the Jets are making a terrible mistake if they do not go back to starting quarterback Mark Sanchez as soon as possible.
Yes, we are talking about the same Mark Sanchez who threw three first-half interceptions against the Arizona Cardinals. We are talking about the same Mark Sanchez who looked eerily comfortable holding a clipboard while third-string quarterback Greg McElroy led the Jets to victory. That same Sanchez should be the starter next week against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Stop rolling your eyes, Jets fans. Hear me out.
This is not about Sunday's game. Who cares about a matchup between the Jets and Jaguars? These teams have a combined record of 7-17, and both teams' seasons will be over in a few weeks.
This week's decision is all about next year. The organization must look beyond the length of its nose and see the big picture.
If the Jets do not go back to Sanchez now, they will probably lose him forever. That won't be good for coach Rex Ryan, general manager Mike Tannenbaum and the immediate future of the Jets' organization.
Money matters in the NFL, and the Jets committed to Sanchez in March with a five-year, $58.25 million extension, about $20 million of it guaranteed. Sanchez is guaranteed to make $8.25 million in 2013. He can also earn an additional $500,000 by working out with the Jets in the offseason. Sanchez will be a Jet next year, whether New York fans like it or not, and that kind of money has "starter" written all over it.
If the Jets are dumb enough to have an $8 million backup on their roster next season, Tannenbaum deserves to be fired for mismanaging owner Woody Johnson's money. Tannenbaum already is in hot water for putting the Jets significantly over the cap in 2013. So rule out any big free-agent quarterback. And unless the Jets tank their final four games, which they won't, New York can forget about a top-five draft pick to secure a rookie who can start at quarterback from Day 1.
It appears Sanchez, McElroy and Tim Tebow are the three options for New York next year. Of these three, Sanchez provides the Jets with the best chance to win next season. He's the only quarterback who has led the Jets to back-to-back AFC Championship Games.
Does anyone really think McElroy is the long-term solution? He's a former seventh-round pick with limited ability and questionable arm strength. That's not the kind of quarterback to build a franchise around.
Let's also not overrate McElroy's 29-yard passing performance on Sunday. He produced only one touchdown in two quarters. Unless the Jets think they can win 7-6 games every week, McElroy cannot lead New York to a Super Bowl.
Neither can Tebow. It's clear the Jets view him only as a gimmick player. His mechanics and accuracy are too poor to be a franchise quarterback. The Jets would have to completely change the offense to fit Tebow’s strengths, and the coaching staff, led by Ryan and offensive coordinator Tony Sparano, is not creative enough to pull that off. All three quarterbacks are under contract next season, but Tebow could be trade bait for the Jets.
Let’s be honest: New York never gave Sanchez a chance to be successful this season. His supporting cast includes unproven wide receivers, an average tailback and an underachieving (and overrated) offensive line. The focus should be on changing and improving those players first, not the quarterback.
The Ryan-Sanchez marriage has produced plenty of ups and downs. But no marriage is perfect. Ryan and Sanchez have stuck together through good times and bad up to this point.
An NFL head coach and starting quarterback are deeply intertwined. Ryan had a moment of weakness Sunday and flirted with McElroy for two quarters. It's a forgivable offense that Sanchez can get over.
But Sanchez will not get over being benched for the remainder of the season. He would be a quarterback scorned, and that would carry into the offseason, training camp and the 2013 regular season. Sanchez would be disgruntled and disheartened, whether he returned as the starting quarterback or a backup. It's not the way the Jets want to begin next season with their $8 million player.
Ryan can avoid all of this by making the right decision. Ryan had his fun, but now it's time to return home to Sanchez. This is the only chance Ryan and the Jets have for long-term success.