FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- The first five games of this season aren't what Mark Sanchez's future as a franchise quarterback should be judged upon, anymore than the New York Jets' decision to dump slot receiver Derrick Mason should be counted on to send a lightning bolt of fear fizzing through the locker room.
The Jets' problems during their 2-3 start run deeper than Mason or the snowballing fear that Sanchez isn't the sort of franchise quarterback who can carry a team, as ex-Jets coach Bill Parcells suggested this week.
How would we know that based on this year? Sanchez needs more help right now. Not less.
The most glaring thing about the Jets' abrupt trade of Mason is the enormous dent it puts in something that's always been taken as gospel around here: This idea that Rex Ryan can coach anybody and wring out the best of them, so bring him your castoffs, your malcontents, your misunderstood stars. Because everyone loves to play for Rex.
Clearly, Mason didn't.
The other red flag that Mason's dismissal signifies is the Jets -- by their own admission now, not somebody else's -- have in-house problems. It's not just outsiders yammering the same old complaints about Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer's approach, or the lack of speed on their defense, or Sanchez being lucky to make it out of a few games intact.
Namath, Parcells and retired Jets nose tackle Kris Jenkins have all taken shots at the team in the past two weeks. What the Jets' surprising decision to ship out Mason really shows is just how much the Jets now think they have behind-the-scene problems too.
A whiff of panic is unmistakably starting to settle over the Jets. And if the Jets lose to 0-4 Miami on "Monday Night Football" in their first game at home in a month, it will be the final shove. All hell will break really loose. And it will be reasonable to question whether they have what it takes to get back up.
Look at how skittishly Jets management has been acting in the past three days as it is:
First, the Jets took the extraordinary -- and highly odd -- step of releasing an unattributed statement Sunday a mere 90 minutes before kickoff in New England to deny a New York Daily News report that Mason and starting receivers Santonio Holmes and Plaxico Burress went to Ryan to complain about the offense. You'd think the Jets would have better things to do before a game against their biggest divisional rival than that, wouldn't you?
Then they went out and benched Mason against the New England Patriots and insisted it was not because he had made critical remarks about the offense -- only to trade him away 48 hours later and claim that was only because the Houston Texans called them. Anyway, haven't you noticed rookie Jeremy Kerley suddenly looks amazing? So amazing, in fact, we're now supposed to believe that Kerley made a proven guy like Mason, a 15-year vet has 12,000 career receiving yards and nearly 1,000 receptions, suddenly expendable. Even though the move now leaves the Jets perilously thin at receiver.
Even worse, the guy delivering that post-trade storyline on Wednesday before Ryan ever took the podium was Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum, who hadn't held an in-week news conference with the media since the regular season began.
No wonder people on the outside smell a few lies and panic in the Jets' actions the past 72 hours.
Safety Jim Leonhard stood by his locker Wednesday and admitted "obviously the confidence level is a bit down" and veteran offensive lineman Brandon Moore allowed that "of course" Monday is a must-win.
"We're 2-3," Moore said. "There's a sense of urgency. There is."
One of the risks of Ryan's big-tent approach has always been that you can just end up inviting the circus to town instead.
But beyond that, there's no need to conflate the problems the Jets have now by saying Sanchez's inability so far to work more efficiently with Mason, Holmes and Burress proves that Sanchez doesn't have what it takes to be a franchise quarterback or win big in this league.
Sanchez already has won in the NFL, in case anyone forgot. And he can win again when he isn't getting his nose broken against the Oakland Raiders, or running for his life against the Baltimore Ravens or being belted around so badly by the Dallas Cowboys he was finally checked for a concussion.
By Sunday's game against New England, the Jets' more conservative, run-first game plan seemed smart rather than deserving of the slams it's taken since. The Jets weren't only hoping to keep Tom Brady off the field -- the game plan also seemed designed to just keep Sanchez alive.
And still ...
When Sanchez calmly responded to Parcells remarks Tuesday on his weekly 1050 ESPN radio spot by saying the Jets coaches know they can count on him to "master the game plan" that they "allow" him to run, it was hard not to wonder if a little frustration wasn't seeping through on Sanchez's part too, despite his many protests to the contrary. The offense was slogging along even before Mason made his remarks about "the cracks" that were showing, or Holmes said a few things about the offensive line and Sanchez that caused the QB to seek a sit down with Holmes to clear the air.
Surgically removing Mason is a nice little diversion from all that. It will dominate the conversation around the team for a day and revive calls for Terrell Owens or Randy Moss to be brought in next. (Just say no.) But then what? It doesn't change the fact the Jets' offensive line has underperformed, and the running game has been inconsistent this season, or Sanchez is now in his third Jets season and he hasn't gotten to work with the same corps of starting wide receivers yet.
With five games now gone, the Jets still seem to be an offense that doesn't know what it wants to be, or even what it's good at anymore.
The offensive breakdowns have been so numerous this season, tight end Dustin Keller conceded Wednesday that sometimes the game films of Sanchez under fire have been hard to watch.
"Definitely," Keller said. "Anytime you look at the tape and the guy you're blocking gets a hit on him, you feel awful. He's taken a pretty good beating. He's taken a lot of hits. I think under the circumstances, he's been a real tough quarterback and bounced back from it well. He never says anything about it, because he knows guys aren't trying to get him lit up, guys aren't trying to let him get hit. But still ..."
Moore said Wednesday the Jets "have got to find a way -- even with all that garbage -- to get first down."
The Jets also need to unearth a way to give their quarterback more help, not less. They need to do something substantive -- play better, game plan better, run the ball better -- beyond kinda, maybe, sorta rattle a few cages by running Mason out of town.
Mason wasn't the Jets' worst problem.
The Jets' biggest concern should be the guys they've got left.