Rex Ryan has made his choice. And now it's time for Mark Sanchez to make his.
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The Jets quarterback can go one of two ways Sunday: back to the bench or back to being a leader in the huddle. And four quarters is all he'll have -- if he's lucky.
There is much more at stake for Sanchez than just a win over the lowly Jaguars (2-10). The fourth-year quarterback is fighting for his livelihood, and perhaps more importantly, his reputation.
For all his size and strength, Sanchez (6-2, 225) has always been viewed by his detractors as weak, lacking the mental toughness necessary to withstand the pressures inherent in his position.
"Mark's always been a guy that you can see how he's feeling about himself by his facial expressions," Jets linebacker Bart Scott said in August.
But Scott made it clear in training camp that Sanchez had matured and was capable of being a Top 10 quarterback this season. "I think now he carries himself upright and sticks that chest out like a peacock," Scott said at the time. "And I think that inspires his players because they respond because he's their leader, and they're going to go as he goes."
But the optimism that was so omnipresent in Cortland has dimmed dramatically in the course of the Jets' 5-7 season. So, too, has the confidence in Sanchez. And now he finds himself embroiled in a three-headed quarterback quandary, along with Tim Tebow and Greg McElroy, the third-stringer who engineered last week's win over Arizona.
If there's one man who knows what it's like to be caught in a quarterback logjam with a head coach named Ryan, it's Steve Beuerlein.
The former NFL quarterback spent two of his 17 NFL seasons in Arizona under Rex's father, Buddy. Beuerlein, who was a member of the Super Bowl champion 1992 Cowboys, began the 1994 season as the Cardinals' starter; his backup was Jim McMahon, who earned a championship ring with the 1985 Bears. But Buddy Ryan sought offensive insurance in quarterback Jay Schroeder, who also won a Super Bowl with the 1987 Redskins.
The team's once-productive offense soon became stunted, in part because of constant quarterback shuffling. Beuerlein -- who, for a long time, harbored resentment as a result -- said the Jets' quarterback controversy is very different from what he endured. Unlike his father, Rex has made his allegiances to Sanchez known.
"Mark's been very lucky," said Beuerlein, now an analyst on CBS Sports Network's "NFL Monday QB" show. "I had 10 different head coaches in 17 years. I was always looking for stability and an opportunity for a coach to stick by me. That's something we all crave, and the fact that Mark has that right there, that's one thing he can't complain about. Rex has been very loyal to him."
Sanchez's three interceptions in the first half of last week's 7-6 win over Arizona seemed like the final straw in his string of ineptitude when Ryan turned to McElroy. And the third-stringer with zero NFL experience delivered a "W."
"I never doubted myself one minute," Ryan told Newsday. "I never even thought of consequences. My job's just trying to win. Obviously, you set yourself up for criticism if it doesn't work, but that did not cross my mind. It was all about, I need to do something and I'm going to do it."
Rex Ryan -- who was on the Cardinals' coaching staff along with his twin brother Rob during Beuerlein's tenure -- said he didn't draw on his father's handling of his three quarterbacks in Arizona. Nor did he refer back to Ravens coach Brian Billick's use of quarterbacks Tony Banks, Scott Mitchell and Stoney Case in 1999.
"I think it's just a feel that you have," Ryan said. "In that game, I just thought, 'Man, we have to get something. We needed a jump-start, we needed a spark."
If Sanchez wants to keep his job, he'll have to produce. But it won't be easy amid the cheers and chants for his other backup: Tebow, the hometown hero. The former Florida Gator is questionable for the game because of two fractured ribs, but Ryan floated the possibility of suiting up all three quarterbacks.
"It's my job to play the way I know how," said Sanchez, who will be without his favorite target, tight end Dustin Keller (ankle). "Sunday can't come fast enough. I can't wait to get down to Jacksonville and play my best."
Sanchez's critics, however, doubt that he's tough enough to rebound.
Beuerlein believes Sanchez "has all the tools to be a very good quarterback in this league," but the analyst cautioned: "I just think that his confidence has been on a downward spiral all year."
Beuerlein highlighted Sanchez's postgame news conference as proof, pointing to the way he seemed "kind of resigned or accepting" of his momentary demotion.
Though he helped lead the Jets to back-to-back AFC title games in his first two seasons, Sanchez has fielded criticism of his mental toughness his entire career. And when he was hounded by those same questions again this past week, his response was void of anger.
"That's fine," he said, dismissing the notion that he's been "broken" by the events of the past week.
But that reaction might be part of the problem, Beuerlein said.
"He just doesn't look like he's overly confident right now. Could everybody be wrong? Sure. But if everybody's kind of saying the same thing . . . ?" Beuerlein asked, his voice trailing off. "He's got to decide which way this is going to go. He can end it by how he handles this situation.''
Still speaking about confidence, Beuerlein said, "I would never let anybody question that . . . You have to exude that confidence to your teammates. [But that's not how] he's carrying himself. There's nothing I don't like about Mark Sanchez as a person. But he's got to believe he can get the job done and then go do it."
Beuerlein added with a laugh, "If he doesn't, the circus will continue."
Though he chose not to share details of his tumultuous time under Buddy Ryan -- "Oh, my God. We don't want to go back there," he said -- Beuerlein expressed a great deal of respect for Rex and Rob. "And the other person involved there," he said matter-of-factly, "my feelings are not nearly as positive."
Beuerlein was selected to the Pro Bowl in 1999 after throwing for 4,436 yards, but who knows if his career would have been different, or more celebrated, had he experienced the same loyalty that Rex Ryan has shown Sanchez. Beuerlein, however, is certain that if he were Sanchez, it would be easy to seize this opportunity against the Jaguars.
"That would be all the motivation I would need," Beuerlein said, referring to the Jets coach's support. "I'd like to see Sanchez come out highly motivated and confident and with a swagger, like 'today, I'm going to show everybody that they're all wrong.'
"That's how I'd love to see him respond.
"I just don't know if he's got that in him."