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Green Lantern: Jets’ Sparano Faced With Franchise-Defining Task

If Offensive Coordinator Shapes Sanchez-Tebow Monster He'll Write His Ticket
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Tony Sparano

New Jets offensive coordinator Tony Sparano (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

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By Jeff Capellini, CBSNewYork/WFAN.com

NEW YORK (WFAN) — Tony Sparano is by all accounts a players’ coach. He’s likable and respected, but knows how to turn the screws just enough to get the results he wants, while never really straying from the message at hand.

He’ll need every bit of what’s made him successful in the NFL to navigate what could be extremely stormy seas with the Jets.

And if he sets his compass correctly and follows his course, whatever it may be, he could very well write his own ticket and sail off from Florham Park, N.J., to any destination he chooses.

It will be a daunting task because Sparano, as the captain and chief architect of this offense, could very well face a mutiny fueled by his two first mates.

I’m not sure the former Dolphins head coach had the idea of Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow as his quarterbacks for 2012 when he took the job as Jets offensive coordinator. One has to think he had some input, first when the front office decided to give Sanchez a contract extension and then when it pulled off the controversial trade for super backup Tebow.

Except for Sparano, we’ve now heard from all the major players that will be involved in what will be the most scrutinized season since the then-New York Titans took the field for the first time in 1960. Maybe Sparano laying low has been by design or better yet perhaps it’s happened because he doesn’t know quite yet what to say.

But regardless of what his words might reveal about the Jets’ direction next season, he’s going to have to have a plan, a near-perfect design for an offense he initially promised when he was hired would be “explosive,” but right now seems to feature a very polite power struggle under center, just one truly dangerous weapon out wide and an offensive line that’s taking on water much like the Titanic did after it hit that iceberg in the dark.

Tebow might very well prove to be another iceberg, but unlike Capt. Edward John Smith, Sparano still has plenty of time to either avoid the obstacle altogether or at least come up with an escape plan that doesn’t require everyone abandon ship should the Jets offense and this unorthodox quarterback collide in a manner that causes irrepairable damage to a franchise that is supposedly in the business of forgetting the past and charting a course for future greatness.

Conventional wisdom suggests Sparano will use Tebow as the ultimate “wildcat” formation weapon. Rex Ryan has already said he sees the player who led the Broncos to an amazing turnaround last season as more of a 20-snap per game participant. Most everyone else doesn’t see how the math adds up. If Tebow is supposedly not a threat to Sanchez as the starting quarterback, how on God’s green earth is Sparano going to use him in a way that justifies the trade and, more importantly, makes the Jets better?

As we all know all too well, Jets fans have exactly zero patience for anything, let alone a hybrid offense with two quarterbacks when the apparent incumbent is already lacking the full backing of everyone involved. Maybe that’s the point of bringing in Tebow. Popular theory suggested the Jets needed to bring in a backup that would push Sanchez, make him realize that this isn’t just a game anymore. In Tebow the Jets are getting a play-making leader who has never known failure. Sure, he has little to no accuracy as a passer, but his resiliency and physical gifts from the football gods have allowed him to be successful, albeit in a very puzzling way.

For a Jet fan to say he’d wish for someone like Chad Henne or Jason Campbell as Sanchez’s primary backup is pretty funny in that regardless of who the No. 2 quarterback was initially desired to be, Sanchez, upon the first sign of adversity, would be booed by approximately half the fans, both in the stadium and watching at home. And if Sanchez was to be pulled in favor of someone as capable as the aforementioned, who likely wouldn’t have been all that capable, what would the Jets really have gained?

At least with Tebow possibly in there, throwing problems aside, he’d still be dynamic and unpredictable enough to opposing defenses to make a difference. The points may not necessarily pile up, but he is certainly capable of throwing the deep ball, mostly because he’s not taken all that seriously as a pocket passer. But if he gets moving and improvising who knows what could happen, especially since most every paid professional in this business is expecting this experiment to be a total disaster.

This is the hand Sparano has been dealt, and how he plans to play it will almost certainly tell the tale of the 2012 season. While it’s true the Jets should be fairly stout defensively and will almost certainly be better on special teams under Mike Westhoff than they were during what was a very un-Westhoff-like 2011 season, the Jets will ultimately be judged by how well they move the ball and how many points they score.

Sparano, along with quarterbacks coach Matt Cavanaugh, has to figure out a way to install the requisite number of plays to keep both quarterbacks highly involved and create this unpredictable offensive approach that will feature the Jets willing to try anything at just about any moment, regardless of what the scoreboard says.

If Sparano pulls this off he’ll be a head coach again in this league sooner rather than later. It’s an extremely daunting task, but one that Sparano can execute because the Jets have successfully created a very competitive battle at quarterback, without really calling it a competition.

You will know all you need to know about Sanchez fairly quickly. My guess is he will take an all-business approach to every team activity, whether it be OTAs, player-organized summer camps or, eventually, training camp. Sanchez, for all intents and purposes, will not fail because he won’t prepare properly. Quite the contrary. If Sanchez doesn’t get the job done it will almost certainly be because he’s just not good enough once the ball is snapped. It’s now totally on him to prove he is. The days of not being worried about losing his job because his backup is either 40 or 22 are over.

Tebow, despite his problems throwing the football, will improve because guys with his kinds of physical gifts and mental makeup get better by accident. They don’t know how to lose. They literally will themselves to bigger and better things. You can hear it in his voice and will almost certainly see it in practice. He may say he’s tight with Sanchez and willing to do whatever the team asks, but make no mistake, he wants Sanchez’s job and, since he’s never really failed at anything he’s ever tried, will do just about anything to get it.

But only if Sanchez lets him. If Sanchez comes out slinging, cuts down on the turnovers and plays his best when the time matters most, something he’s done plenty of times in the past, Tebow will indeed be the gadget and gimmick guy.

Which is why Sparano has to prepare for just about anything. He has to coach up an offensive line that can still be very good, especially because the front office doesn’t appear destined to address the right tackle situation. He’ll have to get under the skin of Sanchez just enough to get him past the interceptions and focused on the next series. He’ll have to work with Cavanaugh to make Tebow into a quarterback that can make the basic and requisite throws, while simultaneously developing plenty of plays that put the football in his hands with space.

And while all this is happening, Sparano will also need to figure out ways to get the rock in Shonn Greene’s hands 15-20 times per game, make use of the plentiful talents of wide receiver Santonio Holmes and tight end Dustin Keller, and figure out some way to stretch the field with largely unproven newcomer Chaz Schilens and turn diminutive slot receiver Jeremy Kerley into a dangerous any-down threat. All of this, of course, is assuming the Jets don’t make more acquisitions or land a serious skill position player in the draft, which is possible considering General Manager Mike Tannenbaum’s penchant for trading up, down and all around.

So there’s a lot to digest here. I have little doubt Sparano will come up with the plan, but because this is really uncharted territory as far as an approach to a modern day NFL offense goes, it’s nearly impossible to predict how it will all shake out, or better yet should shake out.

But it will be interesting to say the least.

If Sparano somehow makes this all work, he’ll be mentioned with the greats at coordinator throughout the league, which would be something considering he is really only thought of as a coach who likes smashmouth football.

So, for the Jets it currently is what it is. Only Sparano knows what it truly will be.

Read more columns by Jeff Capellini

Do you have faith in Sparano to install an offensive philosophy that will make the Jets efficient regardless of the quarterback? Please offer your thoughts in the comments section below. …

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