The Jets offensive coaches took some time out over the offseason to statistically examine the NFL’s top offenses of the last few years, and came to a conclusion: Mark Sanchez isn’t throwing to his backs enough.
The one common theme that the coaches found was that each of the top five offenses over the last five years had a RB who caught at least 40 passes. Last year, the Jets leading receiver amongst RB’s was the departed Leon Washington with just 15 before he got hurt last year. Even is he had stayed healthy, that pace would not have gotten him to the 40 threshold, and after he got hurt Sanchez hardly threw to the RB’s at all. So for 2010, the Jets have placed more focus on getting Sanchez to check down to his backs.
Mark admits in today’s Daily News (link) that he doesn’t like to check down. He wants to push the ball downfield. For fans who had grown tired of Chad Pennington’s endless checkdowns, I’m sure that sounds like music to their ears. But there’s a middle ground. Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and Drew Brees all had that 40+ catch back. It’s really okay to check down. The coaches are drilling Mark on that, and we saw a little bit of that in the preseason game against the Giants when Sanchez hit Tomlinson on a checkdown over the middle that LaDainian stretched out for a 14 yard gain on 3rd and 13. Sanchez also got to see the only real positive play from the Giants first team come on a broken play shovel pass to Ahmad Bradshaw. Checking down can work.
Problem wasn’t all Sanchez last year, though. He may not prefer to throw to his backs, but in Thomas Jones, Shonn Greene, and Tony Richardson, he really didn’t have backs to throw to. Enter future Hall Of Fame member LaDainian Tomlinson. He’s a proficient receiver out of the backfield (Rex described him as “one of the premiere receivers out of the backfield” in a recent press conference), and will be the team’s primary 3rd down back. Sanchez hit him for a 70 yard TD in the team’s intra-squad scrimmage, and his lone pick (and opening throw) against the Giants was thrown his way. Figure a lot of passes going LT this year.
Jets weren’t done there, either. Joe McKnight has gotten a lot of flak from his vomiting to his unflattering showcase on the second episode of Hard Knocks, but before that he caught over 60 passes in college. There are questions about the level left in LT’s tank, and the Jets were proactive in drafting a guy who has the talent to be a very good 3rd down back in the future. The hope is that McKnight can shine late in the season replacing LT the way Shonn Greene shined last year replacing Thomas Jones. And while John Conner is getting a huge amount of press for his ability to terminate LB’s, he’s a guy who caught 25 passes in college (four for TD’s), and can be a viable checkdown option himself. Greene’s unlikely to ever be much of a receiver, so having Conner able to catch passes out of the base offense could be huge.
The idea is to get Sanchez up from 54% passing to over 60%, get his yards per pass attempt up from a very respectable rookie number of 6.7 to over 7. Not insurmountable goals. More importantly, the idea is to eliminate interceptions and incompletions on passes forced downfield, and to replace them with the safe, short gains that sustain drives. It’s a good idea.