Three quarterbacks are walking a tightrope

Their passes might sail high, but three NFL quarterbacks have landed far short of expectations.

Kansas City’s Matt Cassel, Seattle’s Russell Wilson, and the New York Jets’ Mark Sanchez aren’t the only starting quarterbacks who are struggling — there are several — but they’re the ones inching ever closer to the bench.

Through four games, the three have combined for 14 touchdowns and 15 interceptions, and each plays for a team in danger of falling behind early in their respective division races.

In the brightest spotlight is Sanchez, and not only because he plays in the country’s biggest market. He has Tim Tebow looking over his shoulder, and it’s only a matter of time until the Jets give Tebow a chance — a telegraphed pass if there ever was one.

The Jets are coming off a 34-0 blanking by San Francisco at home, with their fans pleading for their team to try Tebow. Jets Coach Rex Ryan endorsed Sanchez this week yet built himself an escape hatch, saying: “I just know in my heart that this is not the time.”

Maybe that’s because Ryan remains convinced that Sanchez is the answer. Maybe it’s that the Jets are playing host to Houston on Monday night, and the Texans have the league’s No. 1 defense.

Regardless, Jets owner Woody Johnson couldn’t help himself. He had to leave the door to Tebow unlocked, telling Bloomberg TV the belly-flop against the 49ers — in which Sanchez had two turnovers and 103 yards passing — was “absolutely unacceptable.”

“No, it doesn’t mean Tim Tebow’s starting next week,” Johnson said. “But it’s a question that’s going to be asked more frequently if this progresses.”

If Sanchez doesn’t want out already, he’s certainly going to be scanning the horizon for a new team if he’s banished to the sideline.

As for Cassel, he’s facing the strong possibility he’ll be benched for the first time in his four years with the Chiefs. He has 10 turnovers this season, tying him for the NFL lead with Dallas’ Tony Romo (who somehow is still safe in his job).

If the Chiefs’ backup quarterback wasn’t Brady Quinn, Coach Romeo Crennel might have made a quarterback change heading into Sunday’s game against Baltimore. Then again, Crennel knows just what he has in Quinn — a born backup — seeing as he coached him in Cleveland.

Then, there’s the rookie Wilson. Seahawks Coach Pete Carroll made a risky decision in starting him in the first place, promoting him over Matt Flynn, a prized free agent who has limited but proven success in the NFL.

Wilson is charismatic, energetic, and has had flashes of poised competence. But it looks as if the Seahawks were too hasty in rushing him into action, and the pressure is mounting for them to try Flynn.

Carroll — who coincidentally has coached all three of the struggling quarterbacks, Sanchez and Cassel at USC — said this week that Flynn isn’t ready to go because he has a sore elbow that hasn’t appeared on the injury report. Meanwhile, Wilson throws fewer passes for fewer yards than any starting quarterback, and on third down is a league-worst 11 for 27 (40.7%).

“We’re going with Russell,” Carroll said, “and he’s working his tail off to get it right.”

In the ultra-competitive NFC West, with Arizona undefeated and San Francisco on a roll, Carroll might not have the luxury of waiting on Wilson much longer.

True confessions

In a fascinating interview on Showtime’s “Inside the NFL” this week, replacement referees Wayne Elliott and Jim Core gave some revealing insights on their wild seven weeks working NFL games.

Elliott was the referee in the Green Bay-Seattle game, which ended with a controversial Hail Mary pass that the Packers appeared to intercept. The side judge ruled it a simultaneous catch between the offensive and defensive players, however, and awarded the game-winning touchdown to Seattle.

On that play, there was a clear offensive pass interference on Seattle’s Golden Tate, who shoved a Packers defender in the back before the ball arrived. The NFL later said that should have been flagged. But Elliott suggested the league didn’t encourage those kinds of calls.

“It was brought up that you don’t really call interference on a Hail Mary,” he said. “The deep officials were trained that during a Hail Mary, there’s a lot of bodies in there and you just let it go.”

Elliott also got a phone message from Green Bay Coach Mike McCarthy during the week after the controversial game:

“He called me at my house last week because he had heard I was having a rough week with all the calls and everything,” Elliott said. “He wanted me to know he thought that what I did, controversial and maybe he didn’t agree with it, that I handled it with class.”

In one memorable exchange with Chicago’s quarterback, Elliott got an expletive-laced tongue lashing.

“I had Jay Cutler, when we did not reset the game clock for him after a discussion about a penalty enforcement, call me a … replacement ref. ‘Just because you are a … replacement ref, you’ve got to know the … rules.” And three minutes later during a timeout, I’m standing next to him and he’s got some water and he said, ‘You want some water?’ And I said, ‘Yes, even though I’m a … replacement ref, I’ll drink your water.’ And he said, ‘It’s all I could say to get your attention.’”

Core, a middle school geography teacher, said the most difficult coach to work with was Tampa Bay’s Greg Schiano.

Asked why, Core said: “He’s college. The rest of them acted at a different level.”

Overall, Core said he had a “very positive” experience as a replacement ref, but that it was clear that by taking the job he was almost certainly giving up hope of ever working big-time college games, as the officiating supervisors of those conferences are often the officials who were locked out.

“We pretty much knew that the advancement in our college career was over had we signed on,” Core said. “So that was the debate on whether I was going to want to give this up.

“The college commissioners, the college football officiating is controlled by the NFL referees. So we knew crossing the line was going to end the college career.”

Talking the talk

Be sure to catch the NFL Slam with Mark & Sam every Monday and Friday at 11:30 a.m. at The host is Mark Thompson, formerly co-host of the Mark & Brian show on KLOS.