Mark Sanchez could be Jets' starter

Updated: December 30, 2010, 11:25 AM ET
By Rich Cimini | ESPNNewYork.com

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Jets coach Rex Ryan, the king of candor, resorted to Belichick-like secrecy Wednesday with regard to his decision on quarterback Mark Sanchez.

Preparing for a relatively meaningless regular-season finale against the Buffalo Bills, Ryan indicated his sore-shouldered quarterback likely will see some playing time, but he remained non-committal.

"I'm leaning to think that maybe he will play some, but we'll see," Ryan said.

This much appears certain: If Sanchez starts for the playoff-bound Jets (10-5), he won't finish. From all indications, it would be a cameo appearance, with the possibility that Ryan decides at the 11th hour to sit Sanchez altogether.

Publicly, Ryan has waffled on this decision, saying after Sunday's loss in Chicago that he doesn't want to play Sanchez. But the next day, the coach backtracked, expressing concern that Sanchez might lose his edge if he sits a week.

By Wednesday, Ryan was in the middle ground, saying maybe yes, maybe no.

Sanchez has played well the last two games despite a sore shoulder that includes minor cartilage damage, according to sources. He gave the obligatory "I-prefer-to-play" comments, comparing himself to a hot basketball shooter that wants to keep shooting. But at the same time, he said Ryan's wait-and-see approach won't affect his preparation.

"I'm preparing like I'm going to play, watching film, taking as many reps as possible and still being smart about my shoulder," Sanchez said. "So until he says, 'Not in,' I'm treating it like a regular game."

The decision appears to be more philosophical than injury-related. Although Sanchez was limited in practice, soft-tossing and handling only the running plays in team drills, the workload was consistent with what he did last Wednesday. The condition of his shoulder actually is better than last week, according to Ryan.

So why not simply spell out his plan?

It's clear what Ryan's gut is telling him -- see his immediate reaction after the game -- but the league frowns upon teams taking a "preseason" approach to late-season games when nothing is on the line. This is an unusual position for the Jets, the first time since 1998 that they clinched a playoff spot before the final game.

Ryan sent mixed signals. He expressed the importance of winning and not easing up, but in his next sentence, he also predicted substantial playing time for the younger players. That group includes running back Joe McKnight, defensive end Vernon Gholston, cornerback Kyle Wilson, fullback John Conner and defensive tackle Marcus Dixon.

"It's not a pre-season game where you have a ton of players -- somebody has to play -- so that's why I'm telling them right now to prepare like you're playing," Ryan said. "As the week goes on, we'll do what I think is in the best interest of the team."

Currently, the Jets are holding the sixth seed in the AFC playoffs. A win, combined with a Pittsburgh Steelers loss and Baltimore Ravens win, would move them up to the fifth seed. But that still means opening on the road, so you can argue there's little to gain this weekend.

Ryan suspects the Jets will play Saturday in the wild-card round, so the possibility of a short week also is factoring into his decision.

In Sanchez's case, Ryan also wants to keep him mentally sharp, putting him through a week of normal preparation before revealing his plan.

"If you know you're not playing, if he tells you early in the week and just says, 'Hey, you're resting all week,' it might change your mental approach," Sanchez said.

Sanchez hasn't played well after long layoffs. Three of his worst outings came after 11-, 14- and 11-day layoffs. Against the Ravens, Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots, respectively, he completed only 47 percent of his passes and threw five interceptions with no touchdowns.

Ryan acknowledged he's aware of that trend, claiming, "It's an interesting thing and ... I've been reminded of it a bunch."

After a three-game slump, Sanchez believes he's in a groove. Against the Bears and Steelers, two upper-echelon defenses, he completed 65 percent of his passes with only one turnover.

"I just want to be ready for the playoffs, and I know what kind of grind that is from last year," he said. "I need to play even better than I did in the playoffs last year for us to win."

Rich Cimini covers the Jets for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

Rich Cimini

ESPN New York Jets reporter

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