- Ian O'Connor, ESPN Senior Writer
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Mark Sanchez has no right to be upset with the head coach of the New York Jets.
Consider the plight of the kid who just defeated Sanchez in Denver. Tim Tebow wouldn't inspire John Elway to say a nice word about him even if he lobbied NFL players to surrender their No. 7s in Elway's honor, just like one of Tebow's biggest fans, LeBron James, once lobbied NBA players to drop Michael Jordan's 23.
Forget the firing of Kyle Orton, Elway's transparent way of trying to make nice. The Denver Broncos have treated Tebow's ascension to the starting role as a hostile takeover, and one that needs to be reversed.
Sanchez? He was handed the starting job the minute he stepped on campus, and his head coach, Rex Ryan, has protected him at almost every turn. The Jets don't even have a legitimate backup quarterback on the roster; they have Mark Brunell, overdue for a trade from the AFC East to the AARP South.
So even though he looked and sounded annoyed at his locker Tuesday after Ryan disclosed he'd given the 41-year-old Brunell a couple of snaps with the first string, Sanchez was smart enough to suppress his feelings from 2010, when he wanted to pummel Ryan for nearly benching him in the Miami game and for auditioning Brunell with the starters in practice.
Deep down, maybe Sanchez knows he's lucky Ryan and Mike Tannenbaum didn't try to work out a trade for Orton or another available arm. Deep down, maybe Sanchez knows that another six games of mediocre football and a missed playoff appearance to boot could force the Jets to sign someone like, say, Vince Young, and give Young a 50-50 shot at winning the job in summer camp.
"Has Mark played at a super high level?" Ryan asked. "Well, we're 5-5. That's what we judge ourselves on."
Even if the numbers suggest Sanchez hasn't regressed, the educated eye can see he has flatlined in Year 3, the year Ryan built his Super Bowl promise around the expectation his quarterback would elevate his game. With everyone from Tom Brady to Tebow outplaying Sanchez, and with his team needing to go 5-1 to return to the postseason tournament for a third straight time, Ryan didn't tweak his man by reminding him about the "stupidest" timeout of all time.
Instead he unearthed the petrified remains of Brunell and hoped for a repeat of 2010, when an enraged Sanchez suddenly became the league's hottest hand.
"If it takes me to do this and take a punch in the nose," Ryan said, "I don't care, I'll take it. But we've got to have it from him."
Ryan admitted this was a contrived stunt, an act of desperation born of his quarterback's indifferent play. If it worked last year, Rex figured, what the hell, let's give it another whirl.
Sure, the timing was a bit odd. Just as he was reminding Sanchez that every practice rep is precious, and vital to the team's bid to improve, Ryan had to explain why he'd given Plaxico Burress two days off to serve charitable causes in Virginia and New York.
Burress handed out turkeys and hams to the needy and homeless, spoke to high schoolers and, while his teammates practiced in the rain Tuesday, visited East Harlem's Central Park East Middle School to donate 20 computers and recognize 17 top students. Good for Burress for caring, and for honoring his post-prison pledge to be a better man.
And yes, Burress has much better explanations for his absences than he did in his dog-ate-my-homework days with the Giants. But missing two full practice days -- with a third coming on Thanksgiving -- in a make-or-break week sure doesn't help Burress or Sanchez, no matter how familiar they are with the Buffalo Bills.
If Sanchez wants to improve between now and judgment day, he needs to build better chemistry with Burress, his target on the Andre Goodman interception-turned-touchdown that might end up destroying the Jets season.
"I would say it was more my fault than his," Burress said. "I could have worked back to the ball. We both have to be on the same page."
When told Burress had accepted responsibility for that fateful pick, Sanchez tilted his head and asked, "He said that?" If the quarterback didn't dispute his receiver's account, he did concede he could've thrown a better pass, or checked off to another receiver.
For the Sanchez of 2011, it's always something.
"I'm exhausting my resources here," he said of the constant review of things gone wrong. "I'm still searching for something ... I think it's just a couple of gametime decisions that I'm screwing up or making a poor throw."
He needs to cut that out, sooner rather than later. Sanchez needs to rediscover the touch that landed the Jets in another AFC title game last winter.
Toward that end, Ryan roughed him up a bit in practice for the first time all year, treating him like a tackling dummy for a couple of plays. Rex reported that Sanchez's body language exposed him as one ticked-off quarterback.
"That's Rex's deal," a flustered Sanchez said of the mind game. He agreed with Ryan that tension in a coach-quarterback relationship can be a healthy long-term thing, and surely Bill Parcells and Phil Simms could give them a lecture or three on that.
But in the short term, Sanchez has to keep searching for the precision and poise that have eluded him. "The margin for error in this league," he said, "is so small."
As an alleged franchise player, Sanchez has already used up his allotment of errors. If he can't stare down this moment of 5-5 truth, he should prepare for a summer smackdown with Vince Young or some other worthy Plan B.
Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." "Sunday Morning With Ian O'Connor" can be heard every Sunday, 9 to 11 a.m. ET on ESPN New York 1050.
3hEric D. Williams