Rex Ryan said this could be his best team ever. Now the Jets have eight games to prove him right. But to do so, Mark Sanchez must be better than he has ever been.
It's clear the Jets have stunted the fourth-year quarterback's growth by dismantling the teams that reached the AFC Championship Game after the 2009 and 2010 seasons, disrupting the style of play that led to those playoff runs.
But when the Jets had the chance to search for answers elsewhere, they stuck with Sanchez . . . all the way to a 3-5 record. Now it's time for him to prove to the front office -- and to the fan base -- that he was worth the fifth overall draft pick in 2009, the March contract extension and, most of all, his starting job.
As they lost four of five games, including a 34-0 home defeat against the 49ers, Tim Tebow stood anxiously on the sideline. If the Jets truly have faith in Tebow's ability, the backup quarterback will see more playing time in the second half. But to make the playoffs, Sanchez must be the one to lead them.
He already has proved he can handle the spotlight, orchestrating 10 fourth-quarter comebacks and 12 game-winning drives in his career, according to ProFootballReference.com, and four playoff victories in six tries. But with limited offensive weapons this season, Sanchez hasn't had many opportunities to be a consistent leader and playmaker.
Ryan, too, is on the hot seat, but in a far different way. Barring a monumental collapse, a losing season won't spell the end of his Jets' coaching career. But it could set up a must-win season in 2013.
Ryan changed the culture within the locker room in his first year, touting his familiar "Play like a Jet" refrain. With his over-the-top hyperbole and unapologetic brashness, he was seen by many as a breath of fresh air in the NFL. But somehow Ryan, a man his players say they'd run through walls for, lost touch with his team a year ago. And as the losses piled up over the last three weeks of the season, Ryan remained blissfully unaware of the extent of the in-fighting.
Now his Jets are on the precipice of missing the playoffs for a second straight year. If that happens, everything Ryan said during the offseason -- from this potentially being the best team he's ever had to him being the best defensive coach in the NFL -- will be remembered as empty promises.
In the aftermath of superstorm Sandy last week, Ryan and his staff self-scouted during the bye week. Their findings weren't pretty.
"There are some things that you see about yourself," Ryan said. "Again, some of the things, it's really disappointing."
Ryan will learn even more about himself and his players during the next eight weeks. Unlike Redskins coach Mike Shanahan, who received flak this week for looking toward 2013 with his team sitting at 3-6, Ryan refuses to have a "defeatist" or "loser" mentality.
As unlikely as it may seem, the playoffs still are within reach, he and his players said Monday. But to get there, the Jets need more than just a win Sunday in Seattle. At worst, they need to go 6-2 the rest of the way. Now, it's up to Ryan and Sanchez to make it happen.