New York Jets  

 

Tony Sparano looks like perfect ringmaster for Jets' QB circus

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- So much for the New York Jets' quarterback derby. Really, it wasn't one. Not this spring. Not in seven-on-seven drills. Not now.

Mark Sanchez is the starter, as Rex Ryan has reminded us at every turn and as Sanchez himself has asserted during practices, where he has vastly outperformed Tim Tebow. It was Sanchez who hit tight end Dustin Keller on a perfect pass in traffic over the middle during a two-minute drill, a throw offensive coordinator Tony Sparano later characterized as one "not every quarterback can make."

Who knows? He could have been talking about Tebow. For all his gifts, Tebow came to the Jets with the reputation of being a poor practice player and has lived up to it. Or down to it. Whatever. Advantage, Sanchez.

But there is still a sense when it comes to this guy -- the lefty quarterback who is sturdier than some linebackers; you can imagine him curling tractor-trailer tires when he really wants to test his biceps -- that he will find a way to prevail when it matters. Tebow's reputation as a winner, too, is intact. No one in the NFL keeps score in June.

That includes Sparano.

"The bottom line is," Sparano said, "I am charged with finding yards and points."

You could make the case that Sparano -- straightforward, no-nonsense, detail-obsessed, energetic, a screamer on the practice field who sprinkles in artfully placed profanity -- is the perfect ringmaster for this circus, this still-curious Sanchez-Tebow union that will continue to teeter between drama and disaster for the foreseeable future.

"(Sparano) is going to let you know when you do it well and he is going to let you know when you do it badly," Tebow said. "That is what you want out of a coach. You always know where you stand."

Said Sanchez: "As soon as Coach Sparano takes the floor, there's no more talking, there's no more messing around and we're focused."

It is Sparano who has more to worry about than whether Tebow is buying a Northport, Long Island home. (Yes, that was a question Wednesday. The affable Tebow said he isn't.) Or whether Sanchez gets his feelings hurt. (Sparano almost certainly doesn't care. At all. "He's not afraid of criticism, OK?" Sparano said of Sanchez. "I think that is important at that position.")

No, Sparano's concerns seem to begin and end with this multipart query: Do his players understand, really understand, his offense? And can they execute it without the kind of self-inflicted wounds that doomed the Jets last season?

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That means no turnovers, incorrect routes or forced throws. That means remembering your check-down receiver and when to go to him. That means recognizing the defense and realizing how it can be exploited. That means no turnovers. (Have we mentioned that? Sanchez was responsible for 26 combined interceptions and lost fumbles last year, matching his touchdown total.) That means not having Sanchez drop back a mind-boggling 67 times, as he did in a pivotal game against the Giants in December. (That losing strategy surely sealed the departure of offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer after the season.) And that means playing with a tempo that befits a unit in full comprehension of its mission and how to carry it out.

"Know," Sparano tells his players. "And know you know."

He isn't afraid to test them. For example, he will call a couple of players to the front of the meeting room, give them a play and ask them to make the play call, line up, identify the middle linebacker, diagnose the coverage, make the check and go.

"That sounds easy," Sparano said, "but it's not really that easy."

He wants every player to understand what a quarterback is required to process.

"If you don't know your assignment, I can't put you out there on the field," Sparano said. "And I told them that."

No one is exempt from Sparano's classroom quizzes.

"Definitely, I feel like I'm in school again with homework," Sanchez said. "But it's a part of the job and I want it to be right. I don't want to make mistakes out on the field."

Said a smiling Tebow: "I'm doing all right. I try to hang in there."

Sparano's message: Execute, and have a short memory when you don't.

But there's more to it than that.

"He's creative," Tebow said. "He wants to come up with new stuff, new ideas, and I think he's very bold in that way. He's not worried about what other people think. He's just worried about whatever works."

By fall, that likely will mean incorporating Wildcat packages, and perhaps other wrinkles, for Tebow. The Jets insist they've yet to start that phase of the offense.

Worth noting: Tebow said he's heavier than ever, at 249 pounds, and wants to be fast enough and strong enough to run the ball effectively. (Locating his body fat would require a TSA search.) And he said he likes that the coaches have encouraged him at times to simply "be an athlete" in trying to make a play.

Yes, Jets training camp and beyond will be fascinating.

For Sparano, whether he likes it or not, his job at some level will include managing two players, two quarterbacks, who are very different in every way.

Entering a make-or-break fourth season, Sanchez says he's physically stronger than ever thanks to dedicated workouts, and he has looked every bit the part of starting quarterback this spring. But he can't escape 2011 -- when his team went 8-8 and he couldn't prevent his huddle from crumbling -- and now he can't escape Tebow.

Consider: Tebow stood in front of his locker Wednesday and said, "I am not too worried about being the man. I am just worried about being the best man I can be."

Goodness. How does Sanchez -- or anyone else -- compete with that?

Maybe, just maybe, Tony Sparano is the best thing to happen to Sanchez in a long time, for a lot of reasons. Sparano's sole focus is football. Execution. Tempo. Ball security.

And Mark Sanchez has an offense to master. Or else.

Follow Kimberly Jones on Twitter @KimJonesSports

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