MIAMI GARDENS, Fla.
It is about as safe and airtight a play as any that a quarterback has at his disposal. It is supposed to act as a security blanket when things break down either in coverage on the receivers or protection along the offensive line.
It's called a "checkdown" -- a short pass, usually to a running back or a tight end who runs a shorter route and is in a good position to catch the ball and bail out his quarterback.
Unfortunately for the Jets' beleaguered Mark Sanchez, even the checkdown didn't offer sanctuary from his myriad problems Sunday as his team's chances of reaching the playoffs officially fizzled in the South Florida sunshine.
Sanchez had three more interceptions in a 19-17 loss to the Dolphins, and all three were on checkdown passes.
Two were intercepted by defensive lineman Randy Starks and the last -- on a fourth-quarter drive that had reached the Miami 10 as the Jets tried to erase a 16-10 deficit -- was picked off by linebacker Marvin Mitchell, who returned it 55 yards to set up a field goal that made it 19-10, effectively putting the game away.
If Sanchez couldn't come through on even the safest of pass plays, what does that tell you about how thoroughly things have deteriorated?
"Got intercepted three times on checkdowns, and as frustrating as it is, that's pretty rare," he said after his picks set up three of the Dolphins' four field goals. "That's the first time I've ever had that happen. I've got to look at the film and see what occurred there. The third one down in the red zone, I need to at least give us another chance. It's really too bad."
As it turned out, the Jets wouldn't have gotten into the playoffs even if they had won, because Tennessee's win over the Texans would have knocked them out. But the Jets made it abundantly clear during their season-ending three-game losing streak that they didn't deserve to play deeper into January anyway.
Sanchez's own performance in consecutive losses to the Eagles, Giants and Dolphins helped drop the Jets from 8-5 to 8-8 and raised further questions about whether they can count on him over the longer term. Despite Rex Ryan's frequent assurances that he is committed to Sanchez as his franchise quarterback, his play the last three weeks has to give Ryan pause about whether he can stake his team's future -- and his own -- in Sanchez's increasingly untrustworthy hands.
The numbers down the stretch, when the Jets needed him most, were downright ugly. In his last three games, Sanchez had five touchdown passes and seven interceptions, was sacked 11 times and lost two fumbles, bringing his regular-season total to eight. His highest quarterback rating in that span was 67.8 in the 45-19 loss to the Eagles.
"Story of the season," said Sanchez, who finished with a career-high 26 TD passes but a career-low eight wins. "We played well in spurts, just not consistent enough to win. I've got to play better for us to win. I can't throw it to them three times."
Three years into his career, Sanchez's resume now includes a late-season collapse after back-to-back appearances in the AFC Championship Game. Despite the criticisms during that span, I've argued that it still is early in his development and that the overall progression has been promising. After all, you can't simply dismiss four road playoff wins, even if the defense and running game were major factors in those victories. Sanchez played well in the postseason, showing plenty of poise and promise.
But there is little to defend in this stretch. At the very least, the Jets need to bring in a QB who can compete with Sanchez and offer a viable alternative.
If Peyton Manning is on the market, you certainly give it some consideration, although three neck surgeries in two seasons make that a risky move. And forget the idea of Sanchez sticking around if Manning is acquired; if Sanchez wanted to have a fistfight with Ryan after Mark Brunell was given a few practice snaps late in the 2010 season, there's no way he'll stick around as Manning's backup.
Sanchez is a dogged worker and has the heart to be a winner; now it's a matter of whether he has the talent.
After what's happened the last three weeks, it's fair to question whether he does. And so begins a long offseason of uncertainty for a quarterback and his franchise.