When a press conference starts with “you’re not going to believe this one,” as the one New York Jets coach Rex Ryan led Thursday did, that’s never a good sign. Ryan told a stunned group of reporters that he would again be switching quarterbacks, going back to Mark Sanchez after it was announced third-stringer Greg McElroy was being evaluated for a possible concussion.
The announcement caps a string of disappointments for Tim Tebow, the pop culture phenom who reportedly held the backup quarterback position for much of the team’s season. As it turned out, that was in title only. After Sanchez embarrassed himself by throwing four interceptions in a debacle of a loss against the Tennessee Titans Dec. 17, Ryan put in McElroy. And after McElroy was sacked 11 times in another humiliating defeat against the San Diego Chargers a week later, Ryan is turning back to Sanchez.
As leadership decisions go, this one’s a head scratcher of linebacker proportions. Yes, as has been widely chronicled, Tebow’s running skills mean he plays a certain style of offense that Ryan may not want to deploy. And yes, there was the reported flap over whether Tebow asked out of the Wildcat—the formation he was specifically designated to play—though that has now been denied, avoided and made into a debate over Tebow’s usually angelic character.
But the repeat passing over of Tebow is raising plenty of worthwhile questions about the team’s management. Why would Ryan and general manager Mike Tannenbaum, whose job is reportedly under review, trade two draft picks to bring in a player and then not start him? Does Ryan hold a grudge over Tebow’s completely understandable disappointments about not getting to play the position for which he was hired?
Or is Ryan worried how his judgment will look if, after a 6-9 season, he starts Tebow down the stretch and the crusading quarterback actually wins? Some think so. Writes ESPN’s Rich Cimini: “Clearly, the Jets are afraid of Tebow, afraid that he’d succeed. That, of course, would fuel a chorus of second-guessers, fans and media types screaming that Tebow should’ve received a chance earlier in the season. The Jets want no part of that cauldron.”
All good questions, but the sports pundits are leaving one out. When a coach brings in a star player and repeatedly passes him over—even when the performance of the two men he’s supposed to replace is downright dismal—what does that say to the rest of his players? Whatever Ryan’s reasons for not playing Tebow, whether it’s strategy or fear, either one is an awfully short-term way of managing a team. In playing Sanchez over Tebow, the message he runs the risk of sending to the rest of his players is that poor performance gets a second chance, and that bench warmers may never get one at all.
I realize that this is the NFL, not pee-wee football where everyone gets a shot. But not giving any opportunity to a player who led his last team to the playoffs and who is arguably one of the greatest Division I football players of all time—however unconventional his style may be—is a short-sighted call that could come back to haunt Ryan long after this circus of a season is in the books.
Jena McGregor is a columnist for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.