EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — A year ago, fresh off his rookie NFL season, Greg McElroy went on a radio station in Alabama, where he went to school, and was asked about the Jets locker room. Maybe a bit naively and honestly, McElroy used words like “selfish” and “a corrupt mindset” to describe the year-end dynamic.
And if not for two fractured ribs to regular backup quarterback Tim Tebow, that might be the most noteworthy item of McElroy’s pro career.
But on Sunday, as Tebow was deactivated, McElroy put on an NFL uniform for the first time during the regular season and came in for struggling starter Mark Sanchez. McElroy threw a touchdown in the fourth quarter to give the Jets their only score, just enough to eke out a 7-6 win over the visiting Arizona Cardinals.
“I feel comfortable with Greg,” Jets coach Rex Ryan said. “I like some of the things he does. The first thing you say about him is that he’s smart and tough. He did a good job today, as did all of his teammates.”
So who is this kid, who impossibly managed to hijack the Jets quarterback drama out of the hands of Sanchez and Tebow?
McElroy isn’t an unknown in the college ranks. Like Tebow, he was an SEC product, who led Alabama to the 2009 SEC championship and national championship as a junior. In fact, McElroy’s Crimson Tide beat Tebow’s Gators 32-13 to win their conference title that year.
McElroy didn’t make much of a splash last season when he started playing for the Jets, in part because he was injured in the preseason after being drafted in the seventh round. His thumb required surgery, and he spent the rest of the season rehabbing.
“I think that was probably the greatest blessing I could ever have,” McElroy said. “It was a blessing in disguise. Obviously at the time it’s such a disappointment and your year’s over and they put you on IR, but I was really able to focus and do grip exercises.”
McElroy worked in the offseason in Nashville after discussing with Jets quarterback coach Matt Cavanaugh what he needed to improve upon return. Ryan noticed how much better McElroy was this season.
“I never knew that a guy could improve his arm strength during an offseason the way Greg did,” Ryan said.
But when the Jets brought in Tebow, McElroy’s chance of seeing playing time beyond the preseason became more and more distant. This week, as Tebow didn’t practice given the fractured ribs, McElroy said he prepared as usual. He was not told until Sunday that he would dress, and in the third quarter after Sanchez threw three interceptions, McElroy was told to put on his helmet and warm up.
He saw Sanchez, in a baseball cap and holding a clipboard, as he walked out with the first team.
“He just gave me a hug and said 'Go get ‘em,'” McElroy said. “Same think I would say to him. I really appreciated the way he handled it and the way he was very supportive of me and very helpful, and I was thankful for that.”
After the win, McElroy exhibited the poise of an SEC veteran when he went to the podium and was asked, inevitably, about whether he expects to be the starter when the Jets head to Jacksonville next week or if he feels secure he has won a chance to move up the depth chart.
“It’s not worth speculating about to be honest with you,” McElroy said. “We’re football players and that’s what we do, and nothing is ever guaranteed, nothing is ever for sure.”
Still, there has been a changing of the guard, even if Ryan hasn’t formalized it yet. On Sunday, McElroy was the better quarterback, and players in the Jets locker room already walked a fine line between Sanchez and this possible heir apparent.
“We all love Mark, we want to see him be successful,” offensive lineman Matt Slauson said. “But I feel the same way about Greg.”