By Steve Lichtenstein
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In the run-up to maybe the most anticipated opening preseason game ever in the eyes of New York media members, I was flipping around the satellite guide and caught one of my all-time underrated comedies, Bill Murray’s 1979 summer-camp farce “Meatballs.”  At the penultimate scene where Murray addresses his troops before the big race, I was hit by a desire to scream the same thing to those about to argue the merits over who should be the New York Jets’ starting quarterback in 2012: Mark Sanchez or Tim Tebow.

To paraphrase Murray:  It just doesn’t matter! It just doesn’t matter!  Because no matter who they pick, the Patriots are STILL the better team and this will be ANOTHER year without a Super Bowl! It just doesn’t matter!

I’m sure there will be a lot said and written dissecting the performance of each QB in last night’s desultory 17-6 loss in Cincinnati.   Not that it mattered, but neither Sanchez nor Tebow looked any different from prior versions.  Sanchez fixated on one receiver and took sacks, while Tebow made a few plays with his legs but was inconsistent throwing the ball, especially on an ugly interception.

By definition, these exhibition games are meaningless.  Unless Sanchez gets hurt, he will be the starter on opening day versus Buffalo.  The Jets keep sending Sanchez mixed signals, but they didn’t extend his contract in March –giving him a raise in guaranteed money for the next two years — to wear a headset.

The Tebow trade made sense to me for two reasons:  He’s as competent a backup as you can find these days (the Giants would have to rely on David Carr, for crying out loud, if anything ever happened to Eli Manning), and coach Rex Ryan is in love with the Wildcat. He thought he finally found a replacement for Brad Smith, who fled to the Bills as a free agent in 2011.

Not that it matters, because the Jets, like their two quarterbacks, are fundamentally flawed.  I haven’t had issues with Ryan in his first three seasons — how can I when he led the Jets to two straight AFC Championship Games before last year’s mulligan — but I’m afraid his lack of offensive football acumen is driving this team backwards.    You don’t win Super Bowls in today’s NFL without a threatening passing game, and the most precious commodity is speed.  “Ground and Pound” is a nice political slogan, but any halfway decent team will stop the running game if it commits to it.

Besides, the league wants the scoreboard to light up like a pinball machine.  All of the rule changes — including those that have put a new focus on player safety — benefit the offense, specifically the passing game.    Winning teams rely on big plays, and big plays are created by players with speed.  Exactly where is that going to come from on the Jets?

Ryan wants it to come from the running game. However, Shonn Greene had an average year rushing in 2011 — he was durable despite his bruising style and did not fumble.  But he rarely broke away for anything longer than 10 yards.  He was also able to pass off some of his load into the arms of the now-retired future Hall-of-Famer LaDainian Tomlinson.  Tomlinson’s replacement on the depth chart is the Jekyll & Hyde Joe McKnight.  He could make some plays, if only he could channel his anger.

As for the Wildcat, Smith was a threat to take it to the house on every touch, while Tebow is more of a guy who will grind it for 5-10 yards (now that he is no longer able to face the Jets).  He’ll make his bigger gains when he leaves the pocket on designed pass plays.  Maybe Ryan will be proven correct with his assertion that Tebow will create headaches for opposing teams, but that’s not the same thing as a strike to the heart.  At best, the Jets are looking at converting a few more first downs each game.

But that won’t happen unless the Jets get better results from their offensive line.  It doesn’t matter that the line has three returning Pro Bowl players — D’Brickashaw Ferguson got his invite solely on reputation while Brandon Moore must have been the only player to answer his phone when the Patriots won the AFC title and couldn’t send their guards.  Besides, the other two members, Matt Slauson and Wayne Hunter, did plenty of damage as drive-wreckers.

Without pass protection, it doesn’t even matter that the Jets have few players who can stretch the field.  I’ve always wondered why it is a common occurrence to see opposing players running free in the secondary while every Jets receiver has one or two defenders draped all over him.  Doesn’t anyone know how to get open?  Santonio Holmes — who sat out last night with a rib injury — can, but he is not a Larry Fitzgerald/Calvin Johnson freak of nature.  He needs a deep threat on the other side to perform at his peak ability.  Will that be rookie Stephen Hill?  Second-year pro Jeremy Kerley (also inactive last night)?  Sanchez must have thought Patrick Turner was wearing a Jerricho Cotchery II jersey the way he kept feeding him the ball on short routes last night.  In a better world, Holmes would be that security blanket, with tight end Dustin Keller another option in the middle of the field.

While the receiving corps is incomplete, at least there’s some depth at the position.  The Jets are paper-thin at most other spots.  Ryan has used injuries as excuses in the past.  You would have thought that Jim Leonhard was Ed Reed the way Ryan explained why the Jets defense tanked following Leonhard’s season-ending injuries at the end of each of the last two seasons.  It doesn’t matter that the Packers won the Super Bowl with numerous players sidelined.  The Bengals were mortified last night having to watch three starters exit with injuries in the first five minutes, but they’ll also adopt the NFL’s “next guy steps up” model.  With the Jets, if center Nick Mangold goes down, the season will be over.

Surrounded by such mediocrity, maybe an Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees or Tom Brady could carry a team like this.  They have each turned previously unheralded players into stars.  If their team is down four at the two-minute warning and they need to go 80 yards to win a game, as a fan I would have confidence that they could get it done.  Sanchez (nine) and Tebow (six) each have had their share of fourth-quarter comebacks, but they’ve failed often enough that you can’t put either in the elite category or even among the Super Bowl-winning subset of Eli Manning, Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger.

Sanchez has not regressed, but rather plateaued.   When healthy, he can make strong throws in tight spots and improvises well when plays break down.  Unfortunately, he has not improved his ability to see the field, which leads to poor decisions.  His accuracy, even on the relatively simple throws, is below average.  He is simply inconsistent with his game management, just like he was in his first two years.  There have just been too many negative plays — interceptions, sacks, fumbles — that have decided games.

The addition of Tebow was supposed to make Sanchez work harder at his craft based on the increased competition.  Mark Brunell may have been a fine tutor, but he was no threat to play, no matter how poorly Sanchez fared or if he was banged up.  Tebow has his advocates, who will be quite vocal after every time Sanchez gets picked.  Unfortunately, Tebow is even less accurate and has less understanding about how to play the position than Sanchez.

Neither player is good enough to take these Jets to the promised land.  So every time I feel inundated by the Sanchez/Tebow controversy debate, I’m accessing my DVR and pressing the PLAY button to watch Bill Murray in his prime.  That’s what matters to me.

How much do you think it matters? Let us know in the comments section below…


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