Mark Sanchez lifted for Greg McElroy

Updated: December 2, 2012, 11:08 PM ET
By Rich Cimini | ESPNNewYork.com

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The New York Jets have a full-blown quarterback controversy and -- surprise -- it doesn't involve Tim Tebow.

Embattled starter Mark Sanchez was benched for the first time in his career during the third quarter of Sunday's 7-6 win over the Arizona Cardinals.

Sanchez, who threw three interceptions, was replaced by second-year quarterback Greg McElroy, who made his NFL debut and led the Jets on a 69-yard touchdown drive in his first series.

After the game, Jets coach Rex Ryan declined to name a starter for next week's game against the Jacksonville Jaguars -- the first time in three-plus seasons he failed to publicly back Sanchez as his starter. If Ryan decides to go with McElroy, it could signal the end of the Sanchez era.

Tebow, whom many felt would eventually unseat Sanchez, wasn't in the equation. He was inactive for the game because of fractured ribs while McElroy was active for the first time in his career.

"It's something I sensed and something I felt," Ryan said, explaining the decision to pull Sanchez after 10 consecutive scoreless possessions. "When you're around the game long enough, you get that feel that, 'You know what? I've seen enough and it's time to make that change.' "

Sanchez was clearly disappointed with the decision, but he didn't question Ryan's decision.

"I didn't expect it, but it doesn't matter," Sanchez said. "It's the coach's call. He wants to win the game, so he's going to do his best to do that."

Sanchez has been inconsistent throughout the season, throwing 12 touchdown passes and 13 interceptions. In fact, he has 44 turnovers over the last two years, including the now-infamous "Butt Fumble" from last week's embarrassing loss to the New England Patriots.

Despite his struggles and Tebow's presence, Sanchez received unflagging support from Ryan -- until Sunday.

Sanchez's first pass was intercepted by former Jets safety Kerry Rhodes, who intercepted another in the first quarter. Sanchez was booed throughout the game. At times, the crowd chanted for McElroy, a seventh-round draft selection last season.

"Right now, I feel confident with Greg," Ryan said. "I like some of the things he does."

McElroy immediately sparked the offense, giving the Jets a 7-3 lead on a 1-yard touchdown pass to Jeff Cumberland that capped a 10-play drive. He also iced the game with a critical third-down completion to Jeremy Kerley.

McElroy's stats weren't stellar -- he completed 5 of 7 passes for 29 yards. But he didn't commit any mistakes.

McElroy declined to speculate on whether he had won the starting job.

"I'm not one to speculate," he said. "We're football players, so nothing is guaranteed. There's no use stressing over the unknown."

Sanchez came to the sideline with 6:49 remaining in the third quarter after a three-and-out and was told by offensive coordinator Tony Sparano that he was done for the day. Sanchez went to Ryan on the sideline.

"I just wanted to hear it from the head coach, that's all," Sanchez said.

The decision was stunning because, despite Tebow's injury, McElroy didn't practice with the starters all the week. Sources said he took only one practice rep.

"It wasn't my best day," Sanchez said.

The decision creates doubt about Sanchez's future with the Jets, who gave him a three-year contract extension (through 2016) in the offseason. It includes an $8.25 million guarantee in 2013, meaning Sanchez is a virtual lock to be back next season.

The Jets chose Sanchez with the fifth overall draft pick in 2009, expecting him to be their franchise quarterback. They won four playoff games with him in 2009 and 2010, but the team has spiraled downward since losing to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2010 AFC Championship Game.

Ryan approached Sanchez in the locker room after the game, put his right arm around the quarterback and spoke to him for several minutes.

Asked about the next game, Ryan dodged.

"I'll let you guys know who the quarterback is when I'm ready to," he said. "We'll look at our situation and evaluate it."

Ryan said he still believes in Sanchez but declined to comment when asked if Sanchez still gives the Jets the best chance to win

"We'll address that going forward," Ryan said.

Rich Cimini

ESPN New York Jets reporter

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