- Rich Cimini, ESPN Staff Writer
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Starting next week, the New York Jets will be part of a quarterback drama that will play out over the course of March. It involves Peyton Manning, Mark Sanchez, Chad Henne and perhaps a surprise -- and it will fascinating to see how general manager Mike Tannenbaum navigates the twists and turns.
Let's set the stage for what might occur, starting with Manning, who likely will be released by the Indianapolis Colts before next Thursday.
Despite refusing to shut the door on Manning, at least in their public comments, the Jets remain firmly in Sanchez's corner. They will explore the Manning situation, according to sources, but the vibe from people inside and outside the organization is that it would take a momentous shift for them to bail on Sanchez. Their 2012 blueprint is built around him.
Basically, Manning would have to throw himself at them, and that's not likely.
Maybe they make a phone call, maybe they take a trip to see Manning -- he of the surgically repaired neck -- throw in person. Tannenbaum's credo is "Every rock, every day," his way of describing his leave-no-stone-unturned approach to finding talent. So you know he'll be involved somehow, except this time it's mostly for show.
But it can be a double-edged sword. The Jets want to perform due diligence on Manning -- they'd be crazy not to -- but they don't want to alienate Sanchez, who already has to be wondering about his standing in the locker room after all the postseason criticism.
The Jets have said all the right things, praising Sanchez for what he's done (four playoff wins on the road) and for what he's still capable of doing, but they've also made it quite clear that last season wasn't nearly good enough.
Frankly, they should be interested in Manning. If Peyton is Peyton -- and reports say his throwing has improved -- how do you ignore one of the greatest quarterbacks in history?
You don't. You get on Woody Johnson's private jet and fly to Florida or Indianapolis or wherever Manning decides to throw for prospective employers, assuming he does. It's a rare opportunity. If they like his pitches, they can make theirs, trying to convince him they're the right fit despite some obvious issues -- cold weather, scheme, personnel, etc.
Sure, it's a long shot, but the Jets owe it to themselves and their fans to make the effort.
"I'd jump on it," said a longtime executive, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "I know there's a risk factor, but the Jets are built to win right now. Sanchez may get better or he may not. Everything around him has to be really good. If it's not, I don't know if he's good enough.
"Look, if a guy like Peyton Manning isn't out there, you stay the course and don't think twice. But he is, so you have to think about it. You never know what could happen. Rex [Ryan] could implode, the team could implode. They're on such fragile ground. Plus you have the New England effect and the Giants effect. I think it makes sense."
That's one school of thought, but the Jets aren't ready to enroll in that school just yet. They don't view this as 2008, when they felt the franchise needed a massive jolt -- i.e. Brett Favre. They don't see this as a "Favre" situation. Next year, maybe. But not now.
If the Manning flirtation (call it whatever you want) lasts more than five days, it will cross into the start of the free agency period, March 13. It could complicate things because the Jets, according to sources, are very interested in Henne, the former Dolphins starter.
This is going to seem really weird, but as of right now, they want Henne more than Manning. They believe Henne would be the ideal No. 2.
Henne's old coach, Tony Sparano, is the Jets' new offensive coordinator, so there's the connection. When a coach is installing his system, he always likes to have someone in the huddle -- preferably, the quarterback -- who knows what's going on and can teach others. That makes Henne appealing.
A Sanchez-Henne tandem would create a buzz, but it's presumptuous to think Henne -- even with his mediocre track record -- will accept a No. 2 job with no chance to compete for the starting job. The same goes for Kyle Orton and Jason Campbell, both veteran free agents.
"I don't think Campbell, Orton and Henne are looking initially to be clear No. 2s," one personnel executive said.
The Jets may feel they can sell Henne on the possibility of competing with Sanchez, but money talks and they may not have enough to satisfy Henne, who reportedly expects offers in the $4 million-a-year range.
They've also had internal discussions about Campbell, who was displaced in Oakland by Carson Palmer. The Jets hired former Raiders receivers coach Sanjay Lal, and Sparano is planning to incorporate some Raiders concepts into his offense.
The last thing the Jets want is to be living in a Peyton-less world with a hole behind Sanchez on the depth chart. They want a legitimate No. 2 because, privately, the organization does believe he has been coddled to a certain extent.
No one knows how Sanchez feels about the Manning speculation -- he hasn't talked to reporters since Jan. 3 -- but he can't be loving the chatter about his job security. But as Tannenbaum noted the other day in a radio interview, sometimes feelings get hurt in this business. This will test Sanchez's mental toughness, assuming he returns April 16 -- start of the offseason program -- as the starter.
The clock is ticking, as Sanchez is due a $2.75 million roster bonus on March 28. Unless they renegotiate his contract to eliminate or postpone the bonus, that date will be the deadline for their quarterback decision.
Tannenbaum has made it clear the quarterback depth chart will have a different look by September. (Adios, Mark Brunell.) Ironically, the player with the most clarity is third-stringer Greg McElroy, who isn't going anywhere even though he created a firestorm for ripping the "corrupt mindset" in the locker room.
It's going to be a memorable month.
The Jets are preparing for what might be a risky game of musical quarterbacks.