This was supposed to be Mark Sanchez's year, the season the Jets' quarterback proved he was worth the fifth overall pick in 2009 and the three-year contract extension that earned him $20.5 million in guarantees.
His teammates made no secret of their expectations, expressing in training camp that they needed Sanchez to be a Top 10 quarterback.
Their hope is that he still can undergo an Eli Manning type of transformation, quieting the doubters as he leads his team to the playoffs and beyond. But Sanchez remains the Jets' biggest question mark.
His detractors have had plenty to highlight: his dead-last completion percentage (49.7), his third-worst passer rating (70.9) and his win-loss record (3-3). But is Sanchez to blame? Or has the lack of quality players at the skill positions hampered his growth?
It's a little bit of both, NFL experts say.
Sanchez may never reach the stature of Tom Brady, but the inconvenient truth for Sanchez critics is this: When Brady takes the field against the Jets Sunday afternoon, he will have his choice of Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Wes Welker and Stevan Ridley. Sanchez will be relying on the hamstring health of Dustin Keller and rookie Stephen Hill and an inconsistent running game.
"When the talent around him -- clearly over the last four or five weeks -- is not even approaching what he had in the early years, people say, 'Well, it's his fault.' I'm not so sure," ESPN analyst Bill Polian, the former vice chairman of the Colts who drafted Peyton Manning in 1998, said by phone.
And every misread, misstep or missed throw by Sanchez means more fodder for the "Tebow Time" crusaders.
"It kind of was a ticking time bomb," former Super Bowl MVP quarterback Kurt Warner said of the chaos that ensued with Tim Tebow's arrival amid questions about Sanchez's ability. "People are just waiting for the opportunity to replace him. It's a difficult place to be in."
Warner, now an NFL Network analyst, has been critical of Sanchez in the past. But during a phone interview this past week, he said he is "playing the best football of his career" and that Sanchez's statistics are skewed because the Jets' roster is "very limited."
"You're just kind of disappointed in the way that he's getting the bad rap because I just don't think they've done enough around him to just give him that opportunity to progress on Sunday afternoons like you'd want a young quarterback to progress," said Warner, a two-time MVP, who voided the second year of his contract with the Giants after losing his job to Eli Manning.
"Go around the league and look at the best quarterbacks. I guarantee you, their playmakers are at the top of the league because they're surrounded by good talent. Stack them up against what the Jets have and I think there's a huge discrepancy."
Darrelle Revis could see the signs in training camp. Two months before he was placed on season-ending injured reserve with an ACL tear, the All-Pro cornerback questioned whether the Jets have done enough to help Sanchez succeed.
"You've got to do what's best for the team," Revis told Newsday in August. "And I don't know if we've been wise in that department . . . But we have to stick with the guys that are here."
Without the necessary weapons, it's unfair for fans and the media to expect Sanchez to carry his team, Warner said. "They can't make mistakes or they lose football games," he said.
Despite their injury-ravaged roster, the Jets have a chance to break the four-way tie in the AFC East Sunday with a win over the Patriots.
"We're right where we want to be in our division," said Sanchez, who threw for two touchdowns in last week's 35-9 win over the Colts.
The Jets haven't defeated New England since their 28-21 divisional-round win at Gillette Stadium on Jan. 16, 2011. But to ensure victory in enemy territory this time around, they must figure out how to run against the Patriots' fourth-ranked rushing defense. Shonn Greene is coming off a career-best day against the Colts (161 rushing yards, three touchdowns). But in the Jets' three losses, he gained a total of 83 rushing yards, and Sanchez was sacked eight times and threw four interceptions.
But the Patriots' porous pass defense (ranked 28th in the NFL) gives Sanchez a chance to prove he can win games with his arm -- something he has yet to show, Warner said.
The Jets won consecutive road playoff games en route to the AFC Championship Game in each of Sanchez's first two seasons. In the Jets' losses in those two title games, he threw for 490 yards and four touchdowns with one interception.
But those playoff-caliber teams have been weakened by personnel decisions and advancing age. Last season, the Jets missed the playoffs for the first time in Sanchez's tenure. But he had career highs in passing yards (3,474) and touchdown passes (26), along with 18 interceptions.
General manager Mike Tannenbaum has said his locker room is "filled with" guys like Giants slot receiver Victor Cruz, but no Jets receiver has emerged from the shadows and set the league on fire.
Sanchez doesn't have a Gronkowski, Welker, Cruz, Jake Ballard or Ahmad Bradshaw to "back him up weekly," Warner said. "But at the same time, I think [the Jets] want to see a guy that can make the guys around them better, even if they're not these great high-draft-pick receivers. So I think the indictment goes both ways."
Polian, the architect of those dominant Colts teams, said patience is the key to evaluating any young quarterback. But he also said it's difficult to assess Sanchez's growth because he's playing under "really, really adverse circumstances." "It's unfortunate that Tebow impinges upon that because, were that not there, I think his road would be a little less rough," Polian said.
At the end of the season, he said, the Jets must decide whether Sanchez's growth has met expectations and "has it been good enough to win?"
Said Polian: "That's the ultimate barometer."