FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Greg McElroy has thought about this moment for years, ever since he was a young boy in Texas pretending he was Troy Aikman.
McElroy could imagine nothing greater in those days than being just like one of his idols, throwing the football around and helping an NFL team win games. Fast-forward a few years, and here’s McElroy now: starting Sunday as the quarterback for the New York Jets.
“I did it,” a beaming McElroy said Wednesday. “I got here and I’m very grateful and excited about this opportunity.”
The game against the San Diego Chargers will mark the first NFL start for McElroy, who is stepping in for the benched Mark Sanchez and leapfrogging backup Tim Tebow on the Jets’ depth chart. Rex Ryan made the decision Tuesday to go with the team’s seventh-round pick last year out of Alabama, and now McElroy gets a chance to show the Jets if he might be part of the franchise’s future.
“I don’t look at it like anything,” McElroy said. “Obviously, it’s one game at a time. Like I said a couple of weeks ago, your role changes every day and every minute. You never know what the situation is going to be. ... Just enjoy right now, live in the moment. That’s what my Dad said when I talked to him, ‘Live in the moment. Enjoy this. You’ve been dreaming about this your whole life.’”
McElroy, who led the Jets to a 7-6 win over Arizona when he replaced Sanchez late in that game three weeks ago, took the first-team snaps at practice Wednesday.
Ryan hasn’t decided on who the No. 2 quarterback will be Sunday — Sanchez or Tebow. All that matters for now is that McElroy, in the coach’s mind, is No. 1.
“I definitely think I want to see what Greg can do,” Ryan said. “He’s a winner. He’s been a winner his whole life.”
He certainly has. McElroy helped lead Carroll Senior High School in Southlake, Texas, to a state title in 2005. Four years later, the University of Alabama rolled all the way to the national championship with McElroy as the quarterback.
Still, there were knocks on his size — he’s 6-foot-2 and a trim 225 pounds — and his arm strength. Draft “experts” projected McElroy as a decent system quarterback, a guy who could be a solid backup but probably couldn’t be an NFL starter. So, McElroy slipped to the seventh round last year.
Ryan said McElroy’s arm is “immensely” better than it was when he first joined the team, and since missing all of last season after dislocating a thumb in a preseason game. He made some news in the offseason, though, when he told an Alabama radio station that there was a “corrupt mindset” in the Jets’ locker room that included some “extremely selfish individuals.” He later apologized to his teammates for the comments.
“His whole resume speaks about him obviously being a very confident guy and a confident leader,” Ryan said. “He understands that we have to protect the football. That’s where we’re at right now.”
And that’s because Sanchez failed miserably at that, turning the ball over 50 times since the start of last season. After McElroy’s solid performance against the Cardinals — 5 of 7 for 29 yards and a touchdown — Ryan took a few days before deciding to stick with Sanchez.
That second chance lasted two games as Sanchez struggled mightily while McElroy wasn’t even in uniform, listed as inactive. Despite the Jets being eliminated from postseason contention, Sunday’s game couldn’t be bigger for McElroy.
“I think it’s a tremendous opportunity, a tremendous moment for me,” McElroy said. “I can’t emphasize enough that this is not a finish line. This is a starting point.”
It could also signal an end point for Sanchez, once considered the face of the franchise who drew comparisons to Joe Namath after helping the Jets to consecutive AFC title games in his first two seasons.
Ryan reminded reporters of that on Wednesday, highlighting Sanchez’s four playoff road wins and ability to “make all the throws.” He also was critical of the quarterback’s mistakes, but refused to say that the Jets misjudged his talent when trading up to draft him fifth overall.
“Well, it’s disappointing,” Sanchez said. “You just hate letting other guys down on the team and that’s the worst part of it. You’re going in there, trying to play well and improve and I just made some bad decisions. I just have to take care of the football better and own up to my mistakes and get better.”
Sanchez threw four interceptions and couldn’t handle a shotgun snap from Nick Mangold with the game on the line in the Jets’ 14-10 loss at Tennessee.
It was an ugly ending to what perhaps could be his last play as New York’s starting quarterback — although Sanchez believes he’ll be in that position again someday.
“Sure, absolutely,” he said. “And you have to feel that way and be confident as a quarterback, no matter how many interceptions or touchdowns or anything you’ve thrown. I just have to be ready to come back strong and I will.”
Running back Joe McKnight, a former teammate at Southern California, suggested that the move to bench Sanchez came as a result of the coaching staff giving in to fans who have been calling for Tebow or McElroy to start for weeks. Sanchez disagreed with Ryan’s decision but said he would fully support McElroy in practice and during games.
“Everything that I’ve learned at this position in this league has been from Mark,” McElroy said. “He’s the guy that I’ve seen every day. Every day that I’ve been an NFL player, I’ve been looking up to him. I’ve been observing him and trying to follow after his lead. I’ve been watching him. I understand how to play this game because of him and I’m very grateful for that opportunity.”