Right about now, Rex Ryan should be yearning for the foot-fetish tabloid headlines of yore. Those were the days, when videos revealing a coach's apparent fondness for his wife's arches could take precedence over something as trivial as the quarterback's job.
Just two years ago, the Jets were hardcore iconoclasts, thriving while marginalizing the position believed to define the 21st-century NFL. Mark Sanchez wasn't irrelevant, but on his team's agenda, he ranked below the defense, the running game and the coach's bluster. Those priorities took the Jets to their second straight AFC title game in 2010. They dispatched Peyton Manning in one road playoff game and Tom Brady in another, despite having only a serviceable 24-year-old quarterback. They had somehow circumvented their sport's great orthodoxy. By comparison, those videos weren't terribly exotic.
Now, the Jets have gone prosaic. They have abjectly surrendered to the cult of the quarterback, which appears to have intersected the Tim Tebow cult at the coordinates of a 3-6 record and Sanchez's league-low 52 percent completion rate.
Rather predictably given geography and the personalities involved, the result has been a dramatic rendering of prosaic. Apparently to protect Sanchez, an array of mostly anonymous teammates told the New York Daily News that Tebow is unqualified to become the starter, that he is "terrible,'' has not shown improvement in practices since he arrived from Denver in the spring and gives every indication that his resuscitation of the Broncos last season was a fluke.
But all of the drama begins with the most banal of assumptions. The problem must be the quarterback. It must be the quarterback. It must be.
That simply doesn't add up. The Jets have lost what made them contenders two years ago, and it did not reside under center.
The 2012 Jets are not losing because Sanchez has failed to live up to promises made in the past. The Mark Sanchez of 2012 is about equal to the rookie version of 2009, who went to the AFC title game. He has slid from the 2010 version, which beat the Colts and Pats in the playoffs, but not nearly enough to explain the team's overall decline from an 11-5 record that year.
Here is the real difference between those Jets and the current model: The 2009 team ranked first in the NFL in rushing offense and first in defense. The 2010 team ranked third in defense and fourth in the run game. This year: 16th in the run, 17th with its Darrelle-Revis-depleted defense.
The Jets reasonably could have expected their quarterback to grow in his job, perhaps enough to close the gap that allowed the 2010 Steelers to go to the Super Bowl after a 24-19 win in the AFC game. He may still bloom into a bona fide star; numbers for his first four seasons don't look all that different from Eli Manning's at the same point in his career.
But only the rarest of young quarterbacks improves as his running game withers, and if Sanchez had been that extraordinary, he would have gone before the fifth spot in the 2009 draft. The Jets became remarkably myopic on that point, giving him the money of a franchise quarterback instead of cash appropriate for the serviceable variety. They would have been wiser spending money to enhance his receiving corps -- also downgraded this season.
Sanchez's three-year contract extension in March, an apparent pacifier after the team briefly pursued Peyton Manning, was only a small part of the Jets' transformation into the football film Stanley Kubrick should have made. Think "Dr. Strangelove'' meets "The Shining'' with a hint of "Eyes Wide Shut.''
At the end of 2011's mediocrity, Sanchez did not appear to have the confidence of the locker room that now seems to favor him so thoroughly over Tebow. One teammate anonymously told the Daily News back then that he had become "lazy and content.'' The running game had become absentee, but that didn't receive enough attention. The cult of the quarterback had already recruited too many members. Then the Jets added Tebow, and all reason and perspective fled town.
If the Jets had fully accepted themselves as an old-school team, the decision to bring in Tebow might have made some sense. He can't be a conventionally great quarterback, the top sirloin of the Mannings, Brees, Rodgers and Brady. But put him on a roster with a superlative defense and some other good skill players, and he just might make a killer stew. What he did in Denver last year still seems unreal, but it happened. In press boxes every weekend, we could see personnel people shaking their heads and grinning in amazement after they heard about Tebow's latest comeback.
Maybe they thought it was a fluke. They definitely didn't understand it. But most of them had to respect it.
The Jets should do the same, maybe not enough to support him over Sanchez, or even back the chaos-inducing decision to bring Tebow in, but certainly enough to recognize his practice skills as a poor indicator. Quarterbacks don't get hit in practice. A running quarterback will never be able to simulate what he can do in a game.
No one should feel sorry for Tebow. He has as many irrational supporters as detractors. He enjoys his elevated profile in the evangelical community. He wrote an autobiography at age 23. The comments in the Daily News may be hurtful, but they say far more about the lack of discipline in the Jets' locker room than they do about Tebow.
It's not clear whether his presence on the roster enhanced the chaos or simply confirmed it. But there's definitely a connection.
The haphazard way the Jets use Tebow is not helping anyone. Sanchez's development may have been stunted by the decision. The rhythm of games is disrupted to accommodate the gadget in the No. 15 jersey. Sanchez completes a long throw and then has to come out for a snap, just because.
If the defense and running game had remained strong, even that might not matter. Then the problem wouldn't be the quarterback. And the quarterback wouldn't be the obsession. And the fetishes could be a lot more interesting.