FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) — Mark Sanchez was once the face of the franchise, the quarterback expected to lead the New York Jets to a long-awaited Super Bowl appearance.
There were lofty comparisons to Joe Namath just two years ago. Now, Sanchez might not even be the starter anymore.
Rex Ryan is in quite the quarterback quandary, undecided on whether it will be Sanchez, Greg McElroy or Tim Tebow under center Sunday at Jacksonville.
"Well, I think right now," Ryan said Monday, "I definitely need a little more time to make that decision."
Not only do the Jets have a quarterback controversy, but they have one that involves three players who all make for intriguing options.
"I'm comfortable and confident with all three quarterbacks," Ryan said. "I think all three guys have, now, proven they can win in this league."
While it was widely thought Tebow would be the guy to eventually take Sanchez's job, McElroy made a strong case for himself in leading the Jets (5-7) to a 7-6 win over the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday.
"That's a decision above my pay grade," defensive end Mike DeVito said with a laugh when asked who he thinks should start. "I trust all three of those guys."
Sanchez was pulled Sunday with 4:48 left in the third quarter, and McElroy came in and led the Jets to the only touchdown of the game on his first NFL drive. Fans chanted "Mc-El-Roy!" throughout the game and booed Sanchez loudly nearly each time he stepped on or off the field, particularly after each of his three interceptions.
Sanchez went a miserable 10 of 21 for 97 yards before taking a spot on the sideline. McElroy's numbers were hardly eye-popping — 5 of 7 for 29 yards — but the fact he energized the team and the crowd meant a lot for a squad still harboring playoff hopes.
"It was a good experience for me," McElroy said on a conference call. "There's been no indication, no information at this point (on who'll start)."
Ryan wants to consult his coaching staff to have "an open discussion" and review the game film before making a decision, which he expects to have before practice Wednesday.
Tebow's health will also likely play a role after he was inactive Sunday while recovering from two broken ribs. He is listed as the team's No. 2 quarterback on the depth chart and was medically cleared to play against the Cardinals, but Ryan decided against making Tebow active because he felt he's "not near 100 percent."
Tebow had additional X-rays on his ribs Sunday to see how they're healing and was still awaiting the results.
"Could I have forced it and went out there and played?" Tebow said on a conference call. "I think I could have managed it."
He spoke to Ryan about being active for the game, but wasn't successful in talking the coach into playing him — as he did on Thanksgiving night. Tebow ended up not playing against New England while McElroy was inactive, a decision Ryan later regretted.
Tebow was expected to have a major role in the offense, but instead has been just a spare part averaging about seven offensive snaps per game. After being the No. 2 quarterback on the depth chart, he could see the No. 3 leapfrog over him and start for the Jets.
"I'm not into hypotheticals," Tebow said. "I'm just trying to get healthy right now."
Now comes the biggest call of Ryan's head coaching career: Does he give Sanchez one more shot at saving his job? Does he let McElroy show the team what he can do for a whole game? Or, does he go with Tebow, provided he's healthy enough, in front of the quarterback's hometown Jaguars?
"There are a lot of tough decisions you make as a coach," Ryan said. "A lot of times, it's easier when you put the three priorities (ahead of everything): the team, the team, the team. You've got to take away personal feelings and whatever, because it's bigger than me or this person or that person."
Ryan was seen in the locker room consoling Sanchez after the game, his arm on his shoulder as the two spoke for a few minutes. They have been connected at the hip since they both got here — they stand side-by-side during the national anthem before every game. Ryan took the job in 2009 and the Jets traded up to draft Sanchez with the No. 5 overall pick a few months later.
Sanchez had never been benched for poor play before Sunday, despite fans and media calling for him to sit at various points during his nearly four seasons. But, he experienced terrific success in his first two years, helping lead the Jets to consecutive AFC title games for the first time in franchise history. This is a team that hasn't won — or even participated in — a Super Bowl since Namath won it in 1969.
The Jets have had a lengthy list of solid but far from super quarterbacks over the years since Namath, including Richard Todd, Ken O'Brien, Boomer Esiason, Neil O'Donnell, Vinny Testaverde, Chad Pennington and even a one-year cameo by Brett Favre. Ryan and the Jets thought they had the guy who could do it in Sanchez.
That all seems like ancient history now.
Sanchez could still reclaim his job and bounce back, maybe even this week. But Ryan has now set the precedent: Play the way you're expected to, or you're going to sit.
"I need to understand where the mistakes came from," Sanchez said after the game. "Keep studying, keep preparing, be ready to play next week and see what happens."
Regardless of what Ryan decides, whether it's Sanchez, Tebow or McElroy, DeVito doesn't believe it will affect the players negatively.
"I think in most locker rooms it could do that, but not in this locker room," DeVito said. "We'll face this just like every other situation, as a family, and it definitely won't divide this group of guys. Last year, I might've had a different answer for you, but this year I have no doubt that this team is going to stick together."
NOTES: Ryan had good injury news, saying he doesn't think TE Dustin Keller has a high ankle sprain, although his status for Sunday is uncertain. X-rays on RB-KR Joe McKnight's ribs were negative after he left the game in the second half. ... Ryan praised the defense, which allowed just 137 yards against Arizona and held the Cardinals to 0 for 15 on third downs. He added that CB Antonio Cromartie, who held WR Larry Fitzgerald to one catch for 23 yards, "continues to play at a super-Pro Bowl level." He also pushed for Cromartie to be selected for the Pro Bowl. "They shouldn't even have one if that kid doesn't get in there," Ryan said.
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