- Rich Cimini, ESPN Staff Writer
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FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Mark Sanchez needs to be better, no doubt. The players around him need to play better, too. The man in charge of it all, Tony Sparano, doesn't get away unscathed here, because he has to do a better job of helping the New York Jets' struggling quarterback.
Sanchez needs a quarterback-friendly game plan that masks his accuracy issues and rebuilds his confidence. It's hard to tell which is lower -- accuracy or confidence -- but something has to change, or else the Jets will be out of contention by Halloween. And Sanchez will be out of a job.
He has completed less than 49 percent of his passes, worst in the league, partly because he's in an offense designed to attack downfield. That's not a bad thing, but it's predicated on a successful rushing attack, using play-action to set up those longer passes.
Problem is, the running game is 3.2 yards and a cloud of rust, so play-action is only a rumor. But there's Sanchez, still chucking it downfield -- and still misfiring more often than not.
Sanchez's average pass attempt travels 9.7 yards in the air, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Only three quarterbacks have a higher average, including two of the best arms in the league, Joe Flacco and Jay Cutler. The other one is the precocious Andrew Luck, whom the Jets will face Sunday when the Indianapolis Colts visit MetLife Stadium.
Sparano isn't a dink-and-dunk kind of guy.
"Bill Parcells used to tell me, 'You can throw 20 of those little things down there, and it'll take you 20 to score a touchdown,'" Sparano said, referring to his coaching mentor.
The Jets aren't scoring touchdowns -- only two in their past 45 possessions, which smacks of the Kotite era. Injuries have hurt, no question, but good teams adapt. Unless they turn into a dominant running team overnight, Sparano should adjust his system to help the quarterback. A little creativity would help.
How about some high-percentage passes to boost Sanchez's confidence? How about some bootlegs, capitalizing on his ability to throw on the run? Why not throw a changeup, using no-huddle to create a little energy?
To fix something, it has to be broken, and you get the impression that Sparano doesn't think Sanchez is broken. He doesn't believe that ugly completion percentage is an accurate reflection of his play.
"Not at all," Sparano said, praising Sanchez's decision-making. "I'll probably get beat up for saying this -- OK? -- but when I look at him and what he's done, he's done some really good things for us.
"Do I want him to complete more passes? Sure, I want him to complete more passes for his sake, because I don't want to see the guy get beat up that way."
So help him.
The Jets should use the running backs more often in the passing game. Shonn Greene and Bilal Powell have combined for only six receptions. When things were going well for Sanchez in 2010 and 2011, he had LaDainian Tomlinson coming out of the backfield.
Sparano explained why they don't throw to the backs, claiming they're needed in pass protection. He said in games this season, the Pittsburgh Steelers, Miami Dolphins and Houston Texans sent extra pressure of nearly 65 percent of the snaps, which "ate up" their backs -- meaning they had to stay in to block.
He acknowledged they could use more "empty" looks to spread out the defense, but that's not his style. Remember his background. Sparano made his bones as an offensive line coach, and there's one thing you know about old line coaches: They're all about protecting the quarterback. The quarterback is like the king on a chess board, and they like to surround him with as many pieces as possible.
That's not how the rest of the league is doing it. With the passing craze, teams are trending away from hiring coordinators whose expertise is the offensive line. In fact, Sparano is one of only five coordinators in that category, but he's only one of two who don't work for an offensive-minded head coach. In other words, he's the head coach of the offense.
Sparano also could help Sanchez by calling bubble screens to the receivers. Jeremy Kerley is their most explosive player, and they should get the ball in his hands as much as possible. Look what the Minnesota Vikings are doing with Percy Harvin; he has 22 receptions near the line of scrimmage. Get him the ball and let him make a play.
"I have to do a better job with some of the quick game, when the ball comes out quickly," Sparano admitted. "Maybe those are a little bit easier and high-percentage throws."
In theory, Sanchez should play well Sunday. His favorite target, tight end Dustin Keller, is back from a four-week hamstring injury. That alone should help his completion percentage. "Huge," Sanchez said of Keller's anticipated return.
They're also facing one of the worst defenses in the league. The Colts can't stop the run or the pass, and they're hardly opportunistic (only three takeaways). They should be a made-to-order opponent for the Jets, whose collective psyche is battered after four weeks of running into brick-wall defenses.
"We'll get things rolling here," Sanchez said. "When you win games, you get a lot of praise, and a lot of things you failed to do in a win get swept under the rug. But when things don't go right and you're 14-of-31, there's a problem. That comes with the territory. That's the nature of this game and playing quarterback in this league. I can handle that."
Sparano believes in Sanchez, believes in his system and believes "we're really close to getting this done the right way here."
They would get there faster with a few tweaks.