What in the devil is keeping Jets coach Rex Ryan from starting Tim Tebow over Mark Sanchez?
As the man standing between Tim Tebow and the New York Jets' starting quarterback job, Mark Sanchez is in a tough spot, at least in the eyes of those who suspect heavenly forces are perpetually working in the God-fearing backup's favor.
After another precarious performance by Sanchez in a 23-17 defeat to the Houston Texans on Monday night, many devout Tebowites were left wondering what on earth could be keeping their hero from getting a shot.
They found their answer in a series of eerily profane numbers: Sanchez, who wears jersey No. 6, has six touchdown passes and six interceptions so far. He's averaging 6.6 yards per attempt, and his longest completion is 66 yards. His passer rating: 66.6.
Throw in a pregame tweet from Tebow noting that the Jets-Texans clash was the 666th Monday Night Football game, followed by the obligatory biblical passage, and the NFL might as well start printing Satanchez jerseys in green-and-white.
When such statistics are passed off as spiritually significant – as with Tebow's 316-yard passing performance for the Denver Broncos in last January's shocking playoff upset of the Pittsburgh Steelers, a number neatly matching his favorite Bible verse – my eyes tend to roll back in my head, Linda Blair/Exorcist-style.
Yet I also have a confession to make: When I hear Jets coach Rex Ryan say there's "no question" he's sticking with Sanchez as the team's starter, my very rational reaction is, What the hell?
I'm fairly sure that Ryan, in an effort to support his starting quarterback, is stretching the truth like Nick Mangold in Spandex. No question? Please tell me there's at least some question that Tebow, who engineered six (sorry) game-winning drives for the Broncos during his magical 2011 season, could spark a team with a 2-3 record and whose quarterback has completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes in each of the past four games.
A case could be made that the primary question being pondered at the moment by Ryan, general manager Mike Tannenbaum and owner Woody Johnson is not if, but when?
If not, why did the Jets trade for Tebow last March after the Broncos' signing of Peyton Manning allowed Denver executive vice president John Elway to pawn off a popular quarterback he never wanted?
While the price to secure Tebow's services ahead of suitors like the St. Louis Rams and Jacksonville Jaguars may have been relatively cheap (fourth- and sixth-round draft picks for Tebow and a seventh-rounder), the Jets did not make the move cavalierly. They knew that Tebow's presence would put pressure on Sanchez and, whether people like Johnson admit it, create a circus-like atmosphere, especially at the first sign that the starter's play was substandard.
They did it anyway, presumably because they believed a) Tebow's presence might stoke a competitive fire in Sanchez that improved the incumbent's performance; b) if the opposite were to occur, Tebow would present a viable alternative at the team's most important position; c) it opened up some intriguing possibilities for the Wildcat offense; d) it increased fan interest.
So far, a) hasn't happened, c) has been utterly underwhelming and d) has been negligible as the Jets have lost three of their past four games.
That leaves b), and while benching Sanchez is a big decision, it would be irresponsible of Ryan not to consider it at this time.
Let me state for the record that I like Sanchez and have been quietly pulling for him to rise to the challenge. I was with the kid three-and-a-half years ago when the Jets traded up to draft him with the fifth overall pick, and his excitement about playing for Ryan in the nation's biggest media market was infectious.
What Sanchez did in helping the Jets to AFC championship game appearances in each of his first two seasons was not insignificant, and I've seen him outduel Tom Brady, among other feats that have convinced me of his potential.
I also believe that, despite his lousy numbers, he's getting a disproportionate share of blame for the Jets' offensive struggles. For the second consecutive season, New York's line play has been shaky, which is one reason the team's rushing attack has been so flaccid. There is a dearth of weapons in the passing game, especially after top wideout Santonio Holmes went down two Sundays ago with a season-ending foot injury.
Oh, and the Jets lost their best player, cornerback Darrelle Revis, to a torn ACL the previous week, putting even more pressure on Sanchez and his offensive teammates to produce points.
So yeah, Sanchez has some excuses for his paltry 48.4 completion percentage, which happens to be higher than Tebow's (46.5) 2011 clip. To his credit, he's not offering any of these excuses publicly. He's being a stand-up guy, and I can understand why Ryan would want to stand behind him publicly.
Let me also remind you that among sports columnists, I am not typically associated with Tebow-as-savior supportiveness. If I have been quick to point out his flaws, it's because so many knowledgeable football people I respect have eagerly discussed them with me.
Trust me, I get it: If Tebow looks as terrible in practice as he did last season in Denver, I can see why Ryan would be squeamish about entrusting his team's fate to the third-year quarterback.
And yet, as we saw last season, practice doesn't define this player. As the 2011 season progressed and Tebowmania grew, I came to admire his resilience and wonder if his growth curve might be steeper than some of us skeptics had imagined.
I covered that playoff game against the Steelers, and it moved me: That was no gimmicky, schlocky victory that could be shrugged off as luck or divine intervention. Tebow manned up and shredded one of the NFL's top defenses.
Surely, a charismatic leader who can do that is an intriguing option for a self-assured, against-the-grain coach like Ryan.
If the coach hasn't yet arrived at the place where he feels comfortable making the switch – and/or selling it to his GM and owner, who told CNBC Wednesday morning that Tebow will be with the club through 2014 – that's totally understandable. The organization has invested a lot in Sanchez, who signed a three-year, $40.5-million contract extension a couple of weeks before the Tebow trade last March, and benching him could have major ramifications.
Ryan wants to win more than anyone, and he has a pulse on his team, and he knows a fair amount about football. I'm sure he has concluded that this isn't the time. Yet.
Still, while the devil may not be in the details, the hellish numbers don't lie: Among NFL starters, Sanchez's 66.6 passer rating ranks ahead of only embattled Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel and Cleveland Browns rookie Brandon Weeden.
The Jets face the Indianapolis Colts, New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins before their early November bye, and if New York doesn't win at least two of three (to reach .500), I'd be stunned if Ryan doesn't give Tebow a go.
If it seems like the season is slipping away, how can he not hand the ball to Tebow, who last year performed CPR on the flatlined Broncos and was hailed as a miracle worker?
Unless Sanchez steps up his game, and soon, look for No. 6 to get deep-sixed – and whatever you do, please don't blame it on You Know Who.