Sanchez: Where It All Went Wrong
By MIKE SIELSKI
From today's WSJ..
Less than an hour after the Jets routed the Indianapolis Colts on Oct. 14, Mark Sanchez sat on a stool in front of his locker at MetLife MET +6.71% Stadium, tying his shoes, the only player left in the room.
He had thrown two short touchdowns in the game, but he had attempted just 18 passes and accumulated 82 passing yards. Running back Shonn Greene had rushed for 161 yards and three touchdowns. The Jets' defense had forced four turnovers. Sanchez's greatest contribution to the 35-9 victory was that he hadn't interfered with it.
As he dressed, Sanchez invited his father, Nick, into the room to sit with him and talk. Nick Sanchez is a fixture at his son's games and has been since Mark was in grade school. Through his four years with the Jets, Mark Sanchez estimated, his father has attended every game save three, and it is a comfort to him to have Nick and the rest of his family there.
"We're just a tightknit group," said Mark, whose agent is his older brother Nick Jr. "They know the kind of pressure and scrutiny I'm under at all times, and they just want to be there to love me, no matter what."
The Jets' win over Indianapolis was the most impressive of their otherwise-unimpressive season—a 26-point rout of a playoff team. But the details of that game and the locker-room scene in its aftermath serve as an appropriate symbol of the franchise's recent failure to construct a championship-level team around Sanchez.
He is a quarterback who is accustomed to and who requires a strong support system, on the field and off. And in allowing that structure to break down—in believing that Sanchez could thrive without it—the Jets made an error so grave that it will likely force them to find another starting quarterback as part of a lengthy rebuilding process.
Any evaluation of Sanchez's Jets career basically boils down to one of two assertions: Either he hasn't been and won't be an elite quarterback, or he could be if the Jets provided him with better offensive teammates. Neither theory, though, explains fully how the Jets have mishandled Sanchez since they traded up to select him with the fifth overall pick in the 2009 draft. Their mistakes even predate the draft. (The Jets didn't respond to a request for comment.)
In his autobiography, "Play Like You Mean It," Jets coach Rex Ryan described his awe at seeing 24 receivers volunteer to catch passes during Sanchez's pre-draft workout for the team—as if the more friends Sanchez had, the better quarterback he must be. "I can't think of anybody who doesn't like Mark Sanchez," Ryan wrote, and that sentiment holds true today.
Sanchez is well regarded among his teammates. They chuckle when, having just finished a weight-room workout, he bounds through the locker room wearing a John McEnroe-style headband. They admire how he handled the media crush that accompanied Tim Tebow's arrival. They like him, and that might be the problem. The Jets mistook likability for leadership.
"The guy in the locker room who's supposed to be…the biggest pain in the butt is the quarterback," said SNY football analyst and former defensive lineman Kris Jenkins, who was Sanchez's teammate for two years with the Jets. "He's supposed to be that guy—your Peyton Manning type, your Tom Brady type. He's out there to win. It's going to get done because he's so driven to do that."
Over his first two seasons with the Jets, when the team reached the 2009 and 2010 AFC title games, Sanchez could afford to mature, to fit in as time passed. The Jets had wisely surrounded him with smart, respected, veteran teammates: Alan Faneca, Damien Woody, Tony Richardson, Mark Brunell.
Gradually, though, the team's front office shaved those players and others like them from the roster, lifting Sanchez to a place of higher prominence within the locker room. Yet he hasn't shown he can bear the burden.
After the Jets' 2011 season dissolved amid a December collapse and backbiting among teammates, Sanchez said he learned not to "be afraid of that fear of conflict with other people." But this season, there were few outward indications, if any, that Sanchez had made the team his. The visual signals he often sends when something goes wrong—head low, shoulders slumped, his dad there to reassure him at the end of every bad day—don't leave the impression of a quarterback who commands respect.
Of course, Sanchez's demeanor would be irrelevant if he performed at the same level as Manning or Brady, and it is here where the Jets have let him down to a degree.
Long ago, the team's player-personnel people should have recognized that Sanchez needed a specific set of conditions around him to succeed: a top-notch rushing attack, experienced receivers and play-calling that minimized the potential mistakes he might make. (Like the 49ers had done with Alex Smith.) The Jets established those conditions in Sanchez's first two seasons, but his accuracy as a passer and his ability to decode an opposing defense's strategy have improved little since his rookie year.
Ultimately, the Jets were too optimistic about how he would develop. In their best-case scenario, they would make him the heart of the offense in a way he hadn't been. They would give him a contract extension, guaranteeing him $8.25 million next season, and it wouldn't matter if Tim Tebow were around. Sanchez would rise to the challenge.
Instead, here they are. The Jets are sifting through the rubble of a 6-10 season, looking for a new general manager and a new direction. Two years removed from standing on the brink of the Super Bowl, Mark Sanchez leaves that lonely image from 2012: a quarterback, waiting for someone else's support, sitting all alone.