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Mark Sanchez continues to be New York Jets' biggest problem

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- These New York Jets, this week, aren't a traveling circus or a predictable punch line. What they are is a team with a problem. A problem at quarterback. And they have four weeks to solve it.

Before we start, let's be clear: This isn't about Tim Tebow. It hasn't been about Tebow all season, mostly because the Jets wanted him enough to trade for him in March but not enough to allow him to play ever. The contradiction hasn't made sense since September, and it won't make sense for the rest of time.

This isn't about Greg McElroy, either. McElroy is the second-year, seventh-round pick out of Alabama who threw for 29 yards to rescue the Jets from the most incomprehensible loss of their lives, to Ryan Lindley and the Arizona Cardinals. The Jets' best reason to go with McElroy, they seem to have decided, is that he's not the other guy. And that's not good enough when you need a franchise quarterback.

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No, this problem for the Jets is about Mark Sanchez. In his fourth season, he has regressed. He makes too many mistakes, resulting in self-defeating turnovers, which have come at considerable cost. (Do the Jets find a way to win in Seattle without his interception in the end zone? Do they edge New England in their first meeting if he doesn't fumble away the ball in overtime?)

On a field last Sunday with Lindley, a rookie throwing lawn darts, Sanchez was the more accurate yet more mistake-prone of the two. And, three interceptions later, Sanchez was the only one to get benched. (Which is, in fact, remarkable. But that is a completely different conversation.)

Sanchez's issues aren't solely about the injuries around him; that's a cop-out. And they aren't about work ethic; offensive coordinator Tony Sparano raves about Sanchez's commitment to preparation.

Sanchez's most vexing shortcoming is a familiar one, one that dates back to his rookie season. In November 2009, Rex Ryan instituted a color-coded system designed to minimize his quarterback's interceptions: red, yellow and green. The colors, as you would suspect, represented different levels of caution: Stop, proceed with care and be aggressive.

After Ryan introduced the colors, and on the back of the league's best defense, the Jets won five of their final six games and the joyride lasted all the way to the AFC Championship Game.

Good times. To Ryan, at his core, that's football the way it's meant to be played.

Fast-forward to present day. The Jets' defense is giving up 24.7 points per game, 22nd in the league. That's not dominant. It's also not a prescription for winning with a quarterback running the offense under a caution flag.

But is there any other way to handle Sanchez? His 44 turnovers since 2011 are second in the league to Philip Rivers' 45. His decision-making remains problematic. The Jets see their quarterback mentally committing to pre-snap decisions on where to throw, staring down receivers, improperly or incompletely reading defenses, and being baited by defensive backs.

An example: Against the Patriots on Thanksgiving night, Sanchez correctly audibled out of a run play after recognizing safety Steve Gregory's positioning. But he checked into a pass play where he locked in on his receiver, allowing Gregory to break on the ball and make an interception at the Patriots' 15.

Fifteen plays later, Tom Brady completed the game's first scoring drive. And the rout -- ultimately, a 49-19 laugher -- was on.

Within the Jets organization, heads shook. A good decision was, instantly, erased by a disastrous one, in a game the Jets had to have. Sanchez saw Gregory. Yet he didn't see Gregory.

It's no coincidence that when the Jets next took the field -- 10 days later, against the Cardinals -- Ryan's patience in Sanchez eventually reached its limit.

So here we are, three seasons after the red-yellow-green palette debuted, and Ryan and the Jets are essentially turning back the clock. In announcing that Sanchez will start Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Ryan said, "I guess you can say we're in 'red' right now."

Is the leash short? "Absolutely."

With four games to go, the postseason is a pipe dream for the 5-7 Jets. Their goal should be to reset Sanchez, to manage him to avoid game-changing mistakes, to spawn hope for a bounce-back 2013, when Sanchez has $8.25 million guaranteed coming to him and they'll have little financial choice but to hitch their wagon to his ride.

Sanchez will have every chance to succeed: The Jets' remaining schedule -- at Jaguars, at Titans, vs. Chargers, at Bills -- features four teams with 15 total wins, the weakest remaining slate in the league.

Ryan accurately maintained Thursday that his future is not tied to his quarterback's. It's still difficult to imagine owner Woody Johnson firing Ryan, though his future, along with GM Mike Tannenbaum's, is not known, at least not publicly.

It's kind of funny that with these Jets, it might be Sanchez who owns the most job security of the three; it's one thing to flush millions, it's another to gut the salary cap. Who knows? It's possible all of them are back for another go-round. But something has to change. The 26-year-old quarterback has to outgrow rookie mistakes. To win big, the light can't be stuck on red.

Follow Kimberly Jones on Twitter @KimJonesSports.

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