By CHASE STUART
Rex Ryan was hired by Mike Tannenbaum on Jan. 19, 2009. Three months later, they traded up in the 2009 N.F.L. draft to acquire Mark Sanchez. Since that moment, the three of them — the general manager, the head coach and the franchise quarterback — have had their fates intertwined. When the Jets made the A.F.C. championship game in their first season together, they far exceeded expectations, reaching that level far sooner than expected.
In the following off-season, Tannenbaum became the toast of the N.F.L. as he acquired four veterans – Santonio Holmes, LaDainian Tomlinson, Jason Taylor, and Antonio Cromartie — to help put the Jets over the proverbial hump. In August, it was Ryan’s turn to steal the spotlight, as he became a national sensation and the coach everyone wanted to play for following his appearance on HBO’s “Hard Knocks.” During the season, it was Sanchez’s time to shine, as he led the Jets on game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime in six different games, the highest number in the league. The Jets won 11 games and went back to the A.F.C. championship game, but again, were stuck at the Super Bowl’s doorstep.
That was the high-water mark of the Tannenbaum-Ryan-Sanchez era. The Jets regressed to 8-8 last season and with a 3-5 record in 2012, appear to be continuing in a downward spiral. With Tannenbaum, Ryan, and Sanchez forever linked, the question the Jets will have to answer at the end of the season is whether all — or any — of them are the right men to take the Jets back to the Super Bowl.
Statistically, Sanchez has been a disappointment his entire career with the Jets. On the field, he has struggled with reading defenses and throwing accurate passes, and as a result, he is ranked below the league average in completion percentage and yards per attempt in each of his four seasons in the N.F.L. Only 18 quarterbacks in N.F.L. history have ranked below league average in those categories while playing for the same team in three consecutive years. Perhaps surprisingly, all but three — Joe Ferguson, Mark Malone, and an aging Marc Bulger — returned to the same team for a fourth season.
Of the remaining 15, one was Phil Simms, who tore his knee in the 1982 preseason, ending his streak of mediocre play. It wasn’t until he turned 30 that Simms had his first statistically solid season in 1985. David Woodleyreturned to Miami but lost his job to Dan Marino. Kyle Boller went back to Baltimore, but Steve McNair was acquired to replace him. Sanchez and Matt Cassel each received a fourth year in 2012 to prove themselves.
That leaves 10 quarterbacks who had three straight years of below average play in both yards per attempt and completion percentage, and were brought back by their team and remained as starters. Five quarterbacks — Donovan McNabb, Tobin Rote, Jim Hart, John Elway, and Drew Bledsoe — responded with above-average seasons in their fourth year in at least one of the two categories.
The other five? All again finished below average in the two categories for a fourth straight season. Mike Phipps in Cleveland, Rick Mirer in Seattle, Trent Dilfer in Tampa Bay and Joey Harrington in Detroit were the first four; the fifth was Eli Manning. I excluded Manning’s rookie season because he did not have enough pass attempts to qualify, but technically, he finished below average in both completion percentage and yards per attempt in each of the first five seasons of his career.
Sanchez currently ranks 33rd in completion percentage and 31st in yards per attempt, so absent Peyton Manning wearing his jersey for the rest of the year, Sanchez is going to finish below average for the fourth straight season in both categories. In Kansas City, Matt Cassel may match his streak, although his days with the Chiefs are numbered.
Can the Jets justify starting Sanchez in Year 5? If previous examples are considered, it’s doubtful. Mike Phipps, like Sanchez, was a top-five pick a franchise gambled on. In fact, Cleveland traded the future Hall of Fame wide receiver Paul Warfield to Miami to acquire Phipps, so the Browns were very hesitant to admit their mistake. In his fifth year, Phipps entered the season as the starter but an injury in the season opener against the Jets allowed Brian Sipe to take the job. Mirer was also a top-five pick, but after his fourth year, the Seahawks traded him to the Bears. Somehow, they were able to package him with a fourth-round pick for Chicago’s first-round selection. Tampa Bay, a team that was able to win despite its poor quarterback play because of a great defense, kept Dilfer as the starter in his fifth year, although an injury paved the way for the team to move on. Detroit traded Harrington after his fourth season to Miami for a late round pick. And while Manning’s individual statistics were not impressive, he had already won a Super Bowl with the Giants, ending any questions about his job security.
If the Jets go into the 2013 season with Sanchez as the starter, they will essentially be giving him as long a leash as any quarterback in N.F.L. history has ever had. There are obviously other considerations with Sanchez. He will cost the Jets salary cap over $17 million if they release him before the start of the 2014 season. As it stands, the Jets will pay him nearly $13 million in 2013. But it’s the extreme exception to the rule for a quarterback to have four consecutive years of mediocre play be given the starting job in his fifth year on a silver platter. When a highly drafted quarterback struggles so consistently and fails to develop, there are usually severe ramifications. And they extend far beyond the quarterback.
From 1998 to 2008, 30 quarterbacks were selected in the first round of the draft. In only nine of those instances was the head coach still around after five years. Mike Smith and John Harbaugh have had consistent success sinceMatt Ryan and Joe Flacco were drafted, so it’s no surprise they survived. The same is true with Tom Coughlin with Eli Manning, who managed to win in a Super Bowl in that time frame. Marvin Lewis and Andy Reid were in no danger of being fired after Carson Palmer and Donovan McNabb were drafted. Only four of the coaches drafted disappointing quarterbacks and still survived, but there were extenuating circumstances in each case.
Brian Billick whiffed on the Kyle Boller pick, but winning a Super Bowl gives you a lot of leeway. Jeff Fisher had a long history of success before the team drafted — in the eyes of many, against the wishes of Fisher — Vince Young, and the Titans saved Fisher’s job with a 6-2 run to finish Year 4 of the Young era. Byron Leftwich wasn’t a home run, but four years later, Jacksonville was in the playoffs with David Garrard at quarterback, so the team wasn’t going to fire Del Rio (yet). And in Chicago, Dick Jauron was on the hot seat after theCade McNown pick turned into a disaster. To the surprise of most, Chicago chose to bring Jauron back for a fifth year, and the team bottomed out to a 4-12 season and fired Jauron a season too late.
If you whiff on a first-round pick, you better find a new one (like Del Rio), finish Year 4 strong (like Fisher) or have a ring on your finger (Billick) to avoid getting fired before Year 5. In Detroit, Jim Schwartz is in a similar situation, although the Lions were so bad for so long and Matthew Staffordwas so successful last year that his seat is not yet hot. But when a quarterback busts, somebody must be the sacrificial lamb. Last year, Ryan made that the offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. This season, there is no one left to blame.
More damning for Ryan is the decline of the unit he directly oversees. The Jets’ defense has regressed under Ryan in nearly every key category since he took over. The team ranked 1st in points allowed in 2009, then 6th in 2010, 20th in 2011, and 24th so far in 2012. The Jets ranked 1st, 3rd, 5th and now 16th in yards allowed over that same time frame. Against the pass, the Jets ranked 1st in net yards per attempt allowed in 2009, but have slipped to 4th, then 7th, and now 12th. The run defense was strong in Ryan’s early years — ranking in the top 12 in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns allowed in 2009 and 2010 — before regressing last year (13th in yards, 27th in touchdowns) and collapsing so far this year (29th and 25th, respectively). It hasn’t helped that players seen as Ryan favorites such as Eric Smith and Bart Scott, have seen dramatic drop-offs in play.
The General Manager
Ultimately, Tannenbaum’s legacy will be tied to Ryan and Sanchez. But he made several questionable decisions that have backfired on him. Over the last several years, Tannenbaum consistently mortgaged the future in a valiant but apparently unsuccessful attempt to win a Super Bowl before the window closed. After the Jets made consecutive trips to the A.F.C. championship game, that strategy made sense, but it has backfired at nearly every step along the way.
From 2007 to 2012, the Jets had just 31 draft picks, by far the fewest in the league. The Jets traded a second-round pick to move up in the first round of the 2007 draft to select Darrelle Revis; later in that draft, they traded a third-round pick to move up in the second round to draft David Harris. The moves provided immediate dividends and seemingly convinced Tannenbaum that such a strategy was the best way to build the team.
The Jets gave up a fourth-round pick to move up six spots to draft Dustin Keller in the 2008 draft, and third- and fifth-round picks to acquire Kris Jenkins from the Panthers. They also traded what turned out to be a third-round pick to get Brett Favre from the Packers. But the real wheeling and dealing began when Ryan arrived.
The Jets traded up in the 2009 draft to acquire Sanchez, losing a second-round pick in the process. Then the Jets gave up their fourth- and seventh-round picks to move up in the third round to draft Shonn Greene. New York also gave Philadelphia a fifth round pick to acquire Lito Sheppard.
The Jets stood pat in the first two rounds of the 2010 draft, but selected Kyle Wilson and Vlad Ducasse, two players who haven’t come close to meeting expectations. The third-round pick that year was lost in the Braylon Edwardstrade; the Jets then traded up in the fourth round, giving up a sixth-round pick in the process, to draft Joe McKnight.
The 2011 draft was without a second-round pick thanks to the Cromartie trade, and then Tannenbaum traded up in the second round of the 2012 draft — losing a fifth- and a seventh-round pick in the process — to draft Stephen Hill. New York’s fourth-round pick was lost to in the acquisition of Tim Tebow, the best punt protector money could buy.
But it wasn’t just the draft where Tannenbaum sacrificed the future to beef up the current team. The Jets gave expensive contract extensions to Holmes,D’Brickashaw Ferguson, David Harris, Bart Scott and Sanchez. All five players have failed to come close to living up to those new deals. The moves were designed to free up cap space at the time to allow the Jets to better position themselves for a final push. Instead, the team has taken multiple steps backward and now has to pay those bills. The most damning move was the extension given to Sanchez, which now hamstrings the team, preventing it from moving on from the quarterback without serious penalty for at least another year. Tannenbaum and Ryan may not be so fortunate.