Greg McElroy's life changed 17 days ago when he made his NFL debut, leading the Jets to their 7-6 comeback victory over the Arizona Cardinals.
Tuesday was another life-changing moment for the 24-year-old as head coach Rex Ryan announced that he will be the Jets' starting quarterback when they host the San Diego Chargers on Sunday. It will be the McElroy's first NFL start.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," McElroy said this afternoon after practice at the Atlantic Health Training Center, during which he took most of the first-team offensive reps. "This is a great moment and a great milestone in my career. This is something I've looked forward to, I've dreamed about my entire life. It's a tremendous team and I'm thankful for Rex and Coach [Tony] Sparano for giving me this shot."
McElroy replaces Mark Sanchez, who has started 61 of 62 games during his four years with the franchise. Sanchez led the Jets to back-to-back AFC Championship Games in 2009 and 2010, but has struggled since in producing an NFL-high 50 turnovers over the last two seasons. Yet McElroy praised Sanchez as a leader and teammate.
"Everything 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 watching him and observing him and trying to follow after his lead. I understand how to play this game because of him."
Ryan highlighted McElroy's play against Arizona and his work on the practice field but stuck with Sanchez for the 17-10 win at Jacksonville and the 14-10 loss at Tennessee. McElroy was inactive those two games and Tim Tebow served as the backup, as he has for most of the season. But with the Jets' playoff hopes ending Monday night with their loss to the Titans and Sanchez committing five turnovers (four interceptions and a lost shotgun snap in the final minute), Ryan decided it was time to make a switch.
"We're behind whatever quarterback is going to play," RB Joe McKnight said. "If it's Mark, Tebow or McElroy, we're behind all our quarterbacks. It was a tough week for Mark last week, but we're still behind him and I'm still behind him. I know what Mark can do. Everybody in here knows what Mark can do. He just had a tough year this year. We just have to stick with him and just keep building him up. With Greg starting this week, we just have to stay with him, tell Greg to keep doing his thing, keep doing a good job. Just let him go out there and play."
While McElroy is obviously excited for his upcoming opportunity, he admitted it's a difficult situation because the QBs are each close friends away from the field.
"I can't say enough about Mark and Tim," No. 14 said. "Those guys are unselfish. Those guys have been nothing but helpful. I talked to Mark yesterday and he was very, very encouraging, very, very helpful. Tim's been the same way."
S LaRon Landry described McElroy as a technician who makes great choices and decisions. Landry played his college ball at LSU and McElroy attended Alabama, one of the Tigers' SEC West opponents. Although their schools are fierce rivals, the hard-hitting safety is pleased that his teammate is getting his first start.
"Yeah, I'm happy for him," Landry said. "Any guy that gets promoted, I'm happy for him. I'm not a hater at all. I wish everybody the best. I even wish Mark the best, whatever situation goes on."
McKnight isn't concerned about the quarterback change. Although the timing of the move occurred late in the season, he said McElroy's personal traits are much like those of Sanchez.
"Mark is a very upbeat guy and McElroy is a very upbeat guy," McKnight said. "They're very similar personality-wise and quarterback-wise, both real positive people."
Tuesday the coaches handed McElroy the game plan for San Diego and he didn't hesitate to start preparing. What stands out to him most from what he's seen on video thus far is the Chargers defensive front seven and linebacker Jarret Johnson's skillset.
"They have a really experienced team," he said. "It'll be a great challenge for us and something we're really looking forward to."
Having dreamed of being a starting quarterback in the NFL ever since he was a kid growing up in Dallas wearing the jersey of former Cowboys QB great Troy Aikman, it's now official that Sunday is his beginning moment.
"Greg McElroy came from Southlake Carroll [High School]," McKnight said. "He played for Alabama. He's always had that leader mentality in him, a natural-born leader."
And as he's set to embrace a new chapter in his life, Landry could only offer one piece of advice for his teammate: "Will yourself to win," Landry said. "Take control. You're the quarterback, you're the leader."
That he is, and he's earned it. But he's not thinking beyond San Diego.
"Obviously, going into Sunday, I'm going to be the starter," McElroy said. "I'm very thankful and fortunate for this opportunity, but I'm not concerned about next week against Buffalo, I'm not concerned about next year, I'm not concerned about those things. Just enjoy right now and live in the moment."