ST. LOUIS - With the Jets' season hanging in the balance and Mark Sanchez facing continued doubts about whether he truly is the long-term answer at quarterback, he deftly avoided a meaningful answer to the most important question he now faces.
Coming off a series of poor performances and facing continuing calls from fans and some in the media that he be replaced by Tim Tebow, Sanchez was asked if he feels as if he's fighting for his job heading into Sunday's game against the Rams.
Sanchez declined to offer a direct answer, opting to deflect the attention away from him by responding, "I'm just fighting for this week, fighting to win this week."
He handled the media pressure better than the defenders who have chased him this season. But this is the most critical area facing the Jets, so let's answer the question for him: You had better believe he's fighting for his job.
And not just in the coming weeks. Sanchez's startling regression after two AFC Championship Game appearances in his first two years has been alarming, and no doubt is prompting major doubts within the organization about whether he truly is the solution at the most important position in professional sports.
For as much as Rex Ryan continues to stubbornly defend Sanchez as his franchise quarterback, Ryan would be foolish not to at least consider the possibility that he will have to look in a different direction if Sanchez cannot dramatically improve his performance and make the Jets competitive.
That is, if Ryan is even in a position to make that decision. After all, the Jets have lost five of their last six games, and if they continue that freefall, there's no guarantee that Woody Johnson will retain Ryan next season. General manager Mike Tannenbaum's job security also is a question.
Therefore, this is a critical stretch as the Jets try to figure out whether Sanchez is the answer. The next few days might go a long way in the evaluation process. If the Jets can beat the 3-5-1 Rams and upset the Patriots on Thanksgiving night to get back to 5-6, a surge of optimism no doubt will return to the entire organization. Two losses in that span, and the wheels will have fallen off.
"Just get a win, get a win," Sanchez said. "The margin for error is so small in this league and losing, just like winning, is contagious and [it] can turn so quickly. Seeing it happen my rookie year, in 2010 we were on a team that just couldn't lose at certain times. We won four games on the last play of the game in a row. Those kind of things happen, just like losing games in a row happen, dropping the last three or whatever it is. I have faith that these guys can turn it around and we just have to keep fighting."
Sanchez has enjoyed a rare week out of the media glare, mostly because of the controversy sparked by an article quoting several players and others within the organization criticizing Tebow, with one defensive starter calling Tebow "terrible."
In a league in which the backup quarterback often is the most popular player among the fans, especially when the starter is struggling, it was a bizarre juxtaposition that underscored the utter chaos around a team that can't get out of its own way.
But now that game day has arrived, the focus will be back on Sanchez. So will the scrutiny. He faces a Rams team that hired his former offensive coordinator, Brian Schottenheimer, to tutor former first-round quarterback Sam Bradford. Sanchez now works under Tony Sparano, who has largely bombed in his first -- and possibly his only -- year with the Jets.
Sanchez's numbers are miserable, partly of his own doing, partly because the talent around him has been eroded by injury -- his top receiver, Santonio Holmes, was lost for the season with a foot injury -- and ineffectiveness. An offensive line that once was the strength of the Jets has mostly faltered this season, and usually reliable tight end Dustin Keller has been plagued by dropped passes.
But quarterbacks are judged on whether they can lift the play of their teammates, and Sanchez has mostly failed this season. He has only 10 touchdown passes and nine interceptions. His 52.0 completion percentage is last among all NFL starters, and that includes the five rookies who entered the season as their teams' No. 1 quarterbacks. He has completed less than 50 percent of his passes in five of nine games. Since throwing for three touchdowns in a season-opening win over the Bills, he hasn't thrown for more than two in a game.
He hasn't been helped by what's gone on around him. But a No. 5 overall pick in the draft who was selected after his team made a dramatic move to trade up can't be mired in mediocrity like this.
That's why it is such a critical time for Sanchez. For as much support as he has received from the team -- this past week, team owner Woody Johnson said he had no doubt that Sanchez is a franchise quarterback -- the reality is that the team has to be prepared to move on.
The Jets can keep Sanchez next year and bring in a quarterback with the potential to start (something they appeared to do before this season by signing Drew Stanton, only to dump him after trading for Tebow). Or they can closely study quarterbacks such as West Virginia's Geno Smith, Kansas State's Collin Klein, Tennessee's Tyler Bray, USC's Matt Barkley or some other potential blue-chip quarterback in the 2013 draft and determine if one of them is better suited to lead the Jets into the future.
In a league in which passing has never been more important, the Jets need to have a capable quarterback. In the next seven games, Sanchez can show them he deserves to be that quarterback. Or he can show them that it's time for them to find someone else.