With just over seven minutes left in the third quarter, the crowd at MetLife Stadium stood and cheered for the first time. It was not for a score, defensive stop, or even a big play. On the field, Mark Sanchez had just thrown an incomplete pass on third down. As he headed to the sideline, Rex Ryan intercepted him. Behind the bench, backup quarterback Greg McElroy began to throw.
After the newly energized defense forced a three and out on the back of their first sack of the afternoon, McElroy officially made his debut. His name echoed around the bowl, shouted by elated fans who had spent the first three quarters booing Sanchez. Just over five minutes later, McElroy stood in the corner of the end zone celebrating his first touchdown. Those were the first and only points the Jets scored all day, as they defeated the Arizona Cardinals 7-6.
“I needed to make a change,” Ryan said. “You get that feeling that you know what, I’ve had enough.” It did not take a special intuition to decide to bench Sanchez though; one only needed eyes and ears.
On the Jets’ first offensive snap of the game, Sanchez dropped back inside his own 10-yard line. Frantically scanning the field, he found no one open and panicked, blindly heaving the ball down the middle of the field. The pass was intercepted by former Jet Kerry Rhodes.
“I didn’t see the first play very well, tried to dump it down to Dustin [Keller] and missed him,” Sanchez said. “It just wasn’t my day.” His problems continued, throwing a second interception later in the quarter. Hearing boos every time stepped on and off the field, Sanchez threw a third pick in the 2nd quarter. He finished the day with a painful line of 10-21 for 97 yards with three interceptions.
“We had sputtered the drive before and they told me to go warm up,” McElroy said. “I warmed up and they put me in.” Once in though, his first drive was less than impressive. It was run heavy, helped by a 15-yard penalty for unnecessary roughness, and capped off with a weak 1-yard touchdown pass to an uncovered tight end. “It was a bit of a floater,” McElroy said. “I almost didn’t want to throw it.”
He did throw it though, doing something Mark Sanchez had only done 12 through 12 games: pass for a touchdown. McElroy also seemed to show something that Sanchez lacked: intelligent and confident play.“I really like how he controlled the clock,” Ryan said.
“I really try to…play the game by the numbers,” McElroy said. “If it’s first and ten we want it to be second and five. If you keep it like that, you’re going to keep yourself sustaining long drives.” This idea is a stark contrast to Sanchez, who seemed to either immediately hand the ball off or attempt a forced, deep pass. The few quick routes he targeted resulted in incompletions, or were inopportunely timed, gaining insufficient yards on a third down.
McElroy was also willing to play smarter and throw the ball away. “If you minimize turnovers and explosive plays, that’s ultimately what wins the game,” he said. Clearly his fellow quarterback needed a reminder.
He carried himself like a leader, too. “You didn’t see any hesitation with him,” said guard Matt Slauson. “He stepped right in and was loud and very direct.” The same could not be said for Sanchez, who seemed anxious and rushed in the pocket and then stood alone on the sideline holding the backup’s clipboard.
Most importantly, McElroy brought life to the crowd. The sight of him warming up prompted a wave of applause, which spurred the defense to its first sack of the day. When he completed the touchdown pass, an uninformed observer could have thought the Jets were about to hoist the Lombardi Trophy. After his drive, the Jets fans refused to sit, urging their team on. “We feed off the crowd tremendously, that was a boost,” tackle Austin Howard said.
It’s important to remember that McElroy was far from great, though. In what had to be one of the weakest stat lines for the “player of the game,” he finished 5-7 for 29 yards and one touchdown. He also added a formidable seven rushing yards.
He also had good luck. His touchdown drive was aided by a borderline unnecessary roughness call, when McElroy was pushed from behind as he went out of bounds. Instead of 3rd and four on the Arizona 28 yard line, the Jets had 1st and 10 at the 14. Later in the 4th quarter, he threw an interception, but was saved when the play was erased by a defensive holding penalty.
Ultimately, the Jets and their fans shouldn’t get too high after Sunday’s win. It was one win and an ugly one at that. The quarterback issue will not be solved easily or internally and reaching the playoffs will require an improbably run, with some help from other teams.
“Just enjoy this one for 24 hours and see how the week progresses,” McElroy said. That is how we should look at the game: a bad game, amid a worse season, with a good storyline. Enjoy it right now. Come next week, its likely nothing will be different.