- Ian O'Connor, ESPN Senior Writer
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If Rex Ryan was called a lot of things in his first three years coaching the New York Jets, afraid wasn't one of them. Blustery? Foolish? Reckless? Yes, yes, and a resounding yes.
Afraid? Rex Ryan didn't even fear fear itself.
But he did coach scared against the Pittsburgh Steelers, no doubt about that. He was so spooked by Mark Sanchez, his starting quarterback, that he called for back-to-back handoffs to Bilal Powell rather than give the face of the franchise a chance to score from his own 31 with nearly a full minute to play in the first half.
Ryan was so spooked by Tim Tebow, his backup quarterback, that he wouldn't let him throw a pass for a second straight week, even after the alleged Wildcat wonderboy punctuated one of those runs out of his Denver Broncos and Florida Gators past by whipping himself into a Tebow Time frenzy.
Hey, it's OK to be afraid of one of your quarterbacks in what passes for a two-quarterback system. But it isn't OK to be afraid of both of them.
So Ryan needs to man up between now and kickoff in South Florida. He needs to find faith in at least one of his high-profile quarterbacks, preferably Sanchez, or this season might start dying the kind of grisly death it suffered on the same Miami Dolphins field last year.
Of course, Ryan couldn't say enough about Sanchez after he reported to training camp -- Look at those new and improved muscles ... Look at those new and improved throws -- and after his opening conquest of Buffalo, a performance that appeared to answer the questions that dogged Sanchez in the offseason.
Would he be rattled by Tebow's presence the way Santonio Holmes said he was rattled by news of the Tebow trade? Would he play with the same jittery feet he played with in 2011? Would he declare himself a long-term keeper the way Eli Manning did in his own Year 4?
Sanchez lit up the Bills and inspired his coach to say the following: "When Mark has time to throw the football, he can throw it with anybody."
Only Ryan wouldn't let him throw it in Pittsburgh at the end of the second quarter, when the coach could've made a statement about his starter that resonated with the team. Ryan would never admit he showed a lack of confidence in Sanchez, nor would offensive coordinator Tony Sparano, and it really doesn't matter. The last two play calls of that first half said it all.
And then there was Tebow, the world's most famous second-stringer and the guy who was supposed to be tailor-made for Sparano, one of the Wildcat's founding fathers. Never mind that Sparano coached Tebow at the Senior Bowl and found his game to be sorely lacking in just about everything.
Three seasons later, Sparano was supposed to be a better match for Tebow than Lolo Jones. That's among the reasons the Denver deal looked like a smart one, at least to this observer. The Jets had no playmakers on their roster, and Tebow wasn't just a playmaker but a major upgrade on Mark Brunell at a position of weakness.
Only he was booed in the Buffalo game by fans who wanted a white-hot Sanchez back on the field. In Pittsburgh, Tebow appeared in the third quarter and immediately ripped off a long run that seemed to resuscitate a lifeless team.
The Steelers had to be a bit concerned; Tebow had destroyed them with his arm and legs in Denver's playoff knockout of Pittsburgh last season. But as soon as the Jets found themselves in an obvious passing down two plays later, Ryan all but reached out from behind a curtain with a cane and yanked his second-string quarterback off the stage.
The coach who was afraid of Sanchez in the first half was suddenly afraid of Tebow in the second. The Jets' biggest offseason hire was allowed a grand sum of three plays from scrimmage.
"We control it," Ryan told reporters the other day. "The media's not going to drive it, and the opponent, they're not going to have any idea what they're going to do with them. And I'm certainly not going to let them know, 'Hey, by the way, Tebow's going to play 50 snaps a week.' I'm never going to give you a legitimate answer."
That's fine. Nobody's asking Ryan to turn his news conferences into chalkboard sessions that benefit his opponents.
Only pretty soon those opponents will figure out on their own that Tebow's never going to see 50 snaps, or 25, or even 10. Pretty soon those opponents will realize that Ryan and Sparano have no idea how or when to use the player they billed as some sort of top-secret weapon.
"In this deal here," Sparano said Thursday of the Wildcat being run by a quarterback, Tebow, rather than the traditional running back, "I don't have evidence."
Sparano was said to be testy in an exchange with reporters, just as Ryan was said to be testy when addressing Tebow's non-contributions to date. So if nothing else, the Jets lead the league in testiness after two weeks.
It's clear they have a developing in-house problem here. Sparano basically admitted he's not sure how Tebow fits with the Wildcat scheme he ran as Miami's coach, and Ryan basically admitted -- through his actions, anyway -- that he doesn't trust Tebow enough to let him throw, and doesn't trust Sanchez enough to let him wing it at the end of the half like established quarterbacks usually do.
Oh, and one other thing: Ryan sure acts like a coach concerned that Sanchez's psyche might be too fragile to deal with the sight of Tebow flinging and completing passes out of the Wildcat.
It doesn't have to be that way. In the end, this Tebow trade can still work out to be a good thing for the Jets.
But it doesn't stand a chance unless Rex Ryan liberates the players he has manning the sport's most important position. He can probably get away with being afraid of one of his quarterbacks, just not both of them.
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