- Rich Cimini, ESPN Staff Writer
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Despite a well-documented rift with Mark Sanchez that became the focal point of a dysfunctional locker room, the mercurial wide receiver will return to the Jets for the 2012 season, owner Woody Johnson said Thursday.
"He may be one of the best players we've ever had here," Johnson said during a 30-minute sitdown with beat writers at the team's facility.
Johnson addressed several topics in a wide-ranging interview, including the Peyton Manning speculation -- and he didn't exactly squash it.
It was just another day at the Florham Park Zoo, where Johnson admitted he's "concerned" about the Sanchez-Holmes relationship but expressed confidence they can co-exist. His comments came one day after future Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson, in a TV interview, said the Sanchez-Holmes feud is "as bad as I've ever been around."
Johnson tried to put out brushfires, but he threw gas on Manning mania. He talked around the Manning question, sounding very much like he did in 2008 before acquiring Brett Favre in a trade.
"I'm not going to tell you guys what we may or may not do," he said. "Our job ... my job, for the fans, is to take this team to the very top level. I've said that from the beginning, and I have a lot of confidence we can do it. We're going to look at everything. We're going to look at every possibility."
Johnson backed Sanchez, saying "we think he's our guy," but he wouldn't guarantee he'd be the starter next season.
"There's no such thing as 100 percent," he said, quickly adding that he expects Sanchez to start "barring whatever."
The Jets have become a soap opera, with current and former players popping off almost daily about the discord in the locker room. Sanchez also has been attacked, with Tomlinson saying the third-year quarterback is "pampered" by the organization.
Johnson disagreed, but his comments will surely open some eyes.
"It's a little bit hard because you always take care of your quarterback," he said, adding, "They probably coddle Tom Brady and all the other great quarterbacks in the league as well."
Johnson supported coach Rex Ryan, who said during the season that he'd never pull Sanchez from a game -- a remark that reinforced the perception that Sanchez has it easy.
"Confidence is an important ingredient in cooking and managing quarterbacks," Johnson said. "Confidence is very important and you don't want to pull quarterbacks. I mean, how many starting quarterbacks are pulled every year? You don't pull your quarterback, you just don't. It's like pulling the captain of a ship."
From all indications, the Jets plan to acquire a viable No. 2 quarterback to push Sanchez. Johnson, contradicting his earlier statement, said Sanchez might "need somebody breathing down his back."
Clearly, Johnson and his team have a lot of work to do, although he claimed the reports of turmoil have been overblown.
"I didn't feel toxicity in the locker room," he said. "I respect LaDainian at the highest level, but I don't think the whole locker room was toxic. There clearly were a few players that had conflicts. ... Would you love to have total harmony? Maybe, but maybe it's good to have a little conflict as well."
Tomlinson's comments about the discord were on the money, according to one player. Much of it stemmed from the Sanchez-Holmes rift, which widened in the final days of the season when Holmes blew off a quarterback-receivers meeting organized by Sanchez. Everything erupted in the final game, when Holmes was benched for jawing with teammates, some of whom felt he quit on the team.
Holmes' $7.75 million salary is fully guaranteed and, if he's on the roster after Feb. 8, another guarantee ($7.5 million) kicks in -- all part of the five-year, $45 million contract he received before the season. Johnson insisted the decision to retain Holmes wasn't financially driven, claiming he can mend his relationship with Sanchez.
"Absolutely," the owner said. "I'm concerned, but I'm confident it can be. They've won a lot of games together and one is good for the other. ... They have good reason to iron this thing out. I think they can do it."
But Johnson said he was troubled by Holmes' behavior in the final game, saying: "Yeah, sure, that's not typical of the Jet mentality. Even that perception (of quitting), that's not what we're all about here." Johnson said he hopes to meet with Holmes and Sanchez in the offseason.
Everybody is taking heat for the Jets' late-season collapse, including Ryan, who issued a stunning mea culpa. The brash coach admitted he didn't have the pulse of the team, which contributed to the chemistry problems.
Johnson defended Ryan, saying he won't ask his coach to tone down the bravado. He said he hasn't asked Ryan to change his style, but he suspects Ryan will tweak his approach and become "a lot more involved." As for the cuckoo's-nest perception of the locker room, Johnson said he wants a room filled with confident, aggressive personalities.
He exonerated Ryan for losing the team.
"It's like fixing your golf swing in the middle of a golf tournament," Johnson said. "Some things you can only change in the offseason. You try to manage it as well as possible, but these situations might have been difficult for anybody to deal with."
Rich Cimini covers the Jets for ESPNNewYork.com.
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