FLORHAM PARK, N.J.
This was the only question that really mattered, and Mark Sanchez didn't hide from the truth.
After the first benching of his career -- and that goes for NFL, college, high school and Pop Warner -- the Jets' quarterback was asked a few hours after being reinstated by Rex Ryan as the starter: Do you feel like you're playing for your career?
"I think we're all playing for that," he said three days after a three-interception debacle got him pulled against the Cardinals. "It's highlighted by the quarterback position, and there's a lot of attention on this position here, but this kind of thing affects people's lives and careers."
Yes, Sanchez clearly understands the magnitude of the career crossroads he faces. Play well on Sunday against the Jaguars and keep the Jets in the playoff race, and he gets to see at least another week as the starter. But another meltdown and Sanchez knows his time in New York may be ending.
"It's not, 'Ah, man, bummer,'" he said. "This is serious. Coaches, players, coordinators, everybody's included. I understand that."
Now he plans to do something about it with what could be his last chance to play a meaningful role. The Jets have poured massive amounts of time and money into Sanchez's development since taking him with the fifth overall pick in 2009, yet the initial payoff of two conference championship appearances has been followed by a stunning regression. Ryan's decision to bench Sanchez on Sunday, an unavoidable move, comes after a series of dreary performances that threaten his career in New York.
If he rights himself and plays the kind of football that helped the Jets become relevant in his first two years, then Sanchez would have rescued his season and the Jets can at least feel there is some value in bringing him back next year with that $8.25 million guaranteed salary. If not, then the Jets will be left with a broken quarterback -- an untradeable one, at that -- and few options left.
Ryan was right to bench Sanchez, and he is right to give him another chance now that the coach threw cold water on his player's face and made him realize there would be consequences for his continued poor play. I often got the sense Sanchez felt a sense of entitlement about being the starter, that no matter what happened on game day, Ryan never would threaten to take it away. Ryan helped foster that attitude, rarely criticizing Sanchez and never benching him, even when there was ample reason to do so.
But Ryan showed on Sunday that his patience is not unlimited, and he yanked the quarterback after his third interception. Greg McElroy did what a capable backup should in that situation; he energized the team, leading the game-winning drive and keeping the Jets in the playoff race, albeit barely. Many Jets' fans have had enough of Sanchez and would like to see if McElroy can run the offense for the rest of the season.
But with the Jets still in the playoff picture, and with so much invested in Sanchez and so much guaranteed money due next year, this is the proper move. If Sanchez improves, then he can take the experience and become a better player because of it. Sanchez joins a long list of quarterbacks who struggled at this point in their careers, and many of them, like Vinny Testaverde, Jim Plunkett, and Jim Harbaugh, became productive players. Others, like Dave Brown, Heath Shuler and Vince Young, have not.
Better to see if Sanchez can pull himself out of it, even if the answer is no. And that might end up being the case, based on his play since the final month of the 2011 season. But there is nothing wrong with getting a definitive answer, especially now that Sanchez knows that even Ryan, his most ardent supporter, is willing to take the ball out of his hands.
"Sometimes you learn from when you're put in that position, when somebody goes in and sometimes it's as easy as you step back and see somebody else in that role," Ryan said. "He really hasn't had that before. Sometimes when you take that step back, your view becomes clearer. I believe that's going to be the case."
If it is, then Ryan will have given Sanchez the opportunity to transform his game at the most critical juncture of his career. If not, then at least the coach knows in no uncertain terms that it's time to move on.