NEW YORK — The New York Jets are still searching for the end zone.
Mark Sanchez can’t get them there, and neither can Tim Tebow.
After three preseason games, the Jets’ offensive ineptitude has become a punch line — especially since they’re the first team in 35 years to go this long without a touchdown. Sure, it’s still only the preseason and Rex Ryan’s Jets insist they’re not worried, but plenty more was expected by this point.
“Well, I’ve said it before,” Sanchez said after the Jets’ 17-12 loss to the Carolina Panthers on Sunday night. “We’re saving our good stuff for the regular season.”
Well, the Jets better hope so, considering it’s been mostly bad.
New York has yet to unveil its wildcat package with Tebow in a game, which might make a difference and surprise everyone — but only if the conventional offense can finally get things going.
The Jets (0-3) insist things will be different on Sept. 9, when they open the regular season against Buffalo, but how?
“Hopefully, some more touchdowns,” Sanchez said with a grin.
Which means the game plan must be a lot different from what everyone has seen so far, right Mark?
“We’ll see,” Sanchez said, still smiling. “Two weeks of suspense.”
For nervous Jets fans. For the doubting media. And, for the Jets themselves, who must be wondering what’s going on here.
After all, they’ve stolen all the headlines this summer, and all eyes have been on Tebow and Sanchez, the team’s two GQ quarterbacks. They have a new offensive coordinator in Tony Sparano, who was going to re-energize the Jets’ offense with a run-first approach, with which they thrived under Brian Schottenheimer a few years ago. They also brought in Tebow who is supposed to be their do-it-all backup quarterback, making defenses worry about how New York will use him from week to week.
So far, it’s been a lot of nothing. The Jets (No. 17 in the AP Pro32) have gone 12 quarters, 35 drives and 174 plays this summer without scoring a touchdown. The 1977 Atlanta Falcons were the last NFL team to not reach the end zone in the first three preseason games, and those guys finished 7-7.
“When Week 1 comes around, all bets are off,” wide receiver Santonio Holmes said, “and the guns are firing.”
Rarely do NFL teams empty their playbooks during the preseason, opting to keep some things under wraps so that they don’t reveal all of their secrets before the games count. That’s why the Jets haven’t shown the wildcat so far, and keeping it a sneaky secret makes sense.
But that was supposed to be just an added wrinkle to the offense, not the catalyst to getting the Jets’ offense off the ground.
“I think when the season gets here and we’re game-planning and show more stuff,” Tebow said, “I think it’ll be a pretty good offense.”
Sanchez was without two of his top receivers in the first two preseason games as Santonio Holmes and Jeremy Kerley were out with injuries. They were back on Sunday night, but Sanchez got no help from his receivers — even though the embattled offensive line, with new starting right tackle Austin Howard, gave him lots of time to throw.
The Jets got the ball at the Panthers 12 in the second quarter after Quinton Coples forced a fumble on Cam Newton. An illegal contact penalty on Captain Munnerlyn on first down put the ball on the 7. The Jets just had to score now, right?
— First-and-goal from the 7: Shonn Greene loses 2 yards on a run off left tackle.
— Second-and-goal from the 9: Stephen Hill can’t handle a throw that was slightly high.
“I think I mistimed my jump,” Hill said.
“Tonight, we just have to hang onto the football,” Sanchez said.
— Third-and-goal from the 9: Sanchez scrambles for 5 yards.
— Fourth-and-goal from the 4: Rather than try to punch it in, Ryan has Nick Folk kick a 22-yard field goal.
On New York’s next possession, Holmes couldn’t corral a pass that he normally would’ve had. Then, Hill had a throw bounce off his hands and right to Munnerlyn. Five plays later, Newton got the Panthers into the end zone with a 3-yard touchdown toss that put Carolina up 10-9.
“Well, we just feel like there’s good stuff right around the corner,” Sanchez said. “We’re steadily improving and now we’ll need to make a big jump for this Buffalo game coming up, but we’ve got some time.”
Tebow nearly got the Jets into the end zone on the last drive of the game — something he was so used to pulling off in Denver. But after moving New York from its own 15 to Carolina’s 27, Tebow threw four straight incomplete passes, including a desperation toss in the back of the end zone to former rugby player Hayden Smith.
“I felt like we had it the whole time,” Tebow said. “I still feel like we should have had it. I feel like we just came up one or two plays short.”
Sanchez and Tebow won’t play in the preseason finale at Philadelphia on Thursday night, meaning it’ll be up to third-stringer Greg McElroy and fourth-stringer Matt Simms, the son of former Giants star Phil Simms, to get New York into the end zone. The next time Sanchez and Tebow will have a chance to get that elusive touchdown will be when the games really count.
“By the time we get going, we will be a confident group,” Ryan said. “I don’t think there’s any doubt. Have we had our entire offensive package out there in the preseason? No. Do we feel comfortable with our offense? I would say yes. I know our defense is looking forward to it as well because, quite honestly, it’s tough to defend. We’ll see once we get it cranked up, but again, there were some encouraging signs.”
Like the kicking game, led by Folk, who has four field goals so far this preseason and Josh Brown, cut Monday, with three field goals. At this rate, the kickers have been the busiest guys on the Jets’ offense.
“The field goal team looked pretty good out there, making their field goals,” Holmes said — without smiling — and adding, “I honestly don’t think we have anything to be frustrated about.”