How Austin Howard Saved the Jets Season, and Possibly Mark Sanchez's Career

Sam QuinnContributor IIISeptember 14, 2012

Photo courtesy of Metro News.
Photo courtesy of Metro News.

Am I jumping the gun here?

Of course, but I've been known to do that.

Heck we all do it, as a collective fan base we've changed our opinion on Mark Sanchez 12,394 times. That doesn't mean what I'm about to say isn't true.

Austin Howard saved the Jets season. 

Don't get me wrong, this story is far from written. Howard could be a flash in the pan, the Bills might just be terrible, or Sunday may have just been the ultimate "eff you" game of the Rex Ryan era. For all we know Pittsburgh will blow out the Jets on Sunday and we'll go right back to hearing about what a disaster this team has turned into.

Well call me an optimist, but I have faith.

I have faith that we didn't just see what Austin Howard could do against Buffalo, but what he will do against everyone else. More importantly, I have that same, renewed, faith in Mark Sanchez. Without Howard's emergence I don't think that would have happened.

So how did he, a former undrafted free agent who has had stints with Philadelphia and Baltimore, have such a pronounced effect on the Jets?

To be honest, it starts with the fact that he isn't Wayne Hunter.

Even if Hunter isn't the worst right tackle in the NFL (which is a tough sell), he was by far the worst right tackle the Jets could have started. His presence created too many distractions to count.

Every fan hated him.

It could be argued that many of the players, particularly Santonio Holmes, did as well. Coaches were constantly asked about him in press conferences, and Rex Ryan had to announce his fictional job security on a near-daily basis.

More importantly though, his terrible play undermined not one, not two, but three Pro Bowlers on the line: D'Brickashaw Ferguson, Nick Mangold and Brandon Moore. Never has it been more apparent that an offensive line is only as strong as it's weakest link.

Hunter turned what was once arguably the league's best line into a legitimate weakness for the team, and more importantly, Mark Sanchez.

The mental side of playing quarterback in the NFL is just as important as the physical, and when Hunter was playing right tackle Mark Sanchez constantly had to worry about getting hit. On a good day Sanchez could be described as skittish, so you can imagine just how bad things must have been during Hunter's heyday. 

Confidence is an incredibly powerful force in football. Every Giant in 2007 said that their Week 17 game against New England made them believe that they could beat them in the Super Bowl, which they did.

If a quarterback doesn't believe they can play well they won't. Sanchez has had that deer-in-the-headlights look for years. Quarterbacks can't play well when they're scared of getting hit. We see this time, and time again. Bad offensive lines ruined the careers of guys like Joey Harrington and David Carr.

It threatened to swallow Sanchez as well.

Then Howard took over and everything changed.

Sanchez looked like an entirely different quarterback with Howard on Sunday. To say that Howard won the battle with star defensive end Mario Williams is an understatement—he dominated the $100 million man.

Williams never got to Sanchez and only registered a single tackle.

With the potential danger of Mario Williams taken out of the picture, Mark Sanchez was able to do things that we rarely see him do. He actually took shots down the field, and more importantly he actually displayed a bit of... and I can't believe I'm saying this about Sanchez... poise.

He looked like a real NFL quarterback.

He stood confidently in the pocket and made throws down the field knowing that his offensive line could actually protect him. That's what allowed the Jets to get hot early in the game and eventually rout the Bills.

What was the alternative?

Well, think back to the Sanchez we're used to seeing. You know, the one who constantly held back a Super Bowl caliber roster. If that one shows up against the Bills, the Jets may have lost that game.

What would happen if the Jets started 0-1?

They'd probably lose a few more games. Fans would start chanting for Tebow. The defense would get sick of losing 13-10 games and eventually lose interest in the season. The self-fulfilling prophecy of a Jets circus would be fulfilled. Rex Ryan may lose his job, and Mark Sanchez would ride off into the sunset of obscurity filling the Matt Leinart memorial celebrity backup QB role in Carolina or Kansas City or some other obscure football town.

But now the Jets look like they have a real offense. Howard's presence seems to have given Sanchez the confidence he needed to be the quarterback we all expected.

The quarterback that can lead the Jets to the playoffs, and heck, maybe even the Super Bowl.

The Jets aren't looking at a potential midseason mutiny anymore. They're looking at a potential postseason celebration. All thanks to the domino effect of one player getting one chance.

Austin Howard won't get much praise for his performance, though. Insiders and experts may praise him, but the talking heads on ESPN will direct the credit entirely to Sanchez and Tony Sparano.

It's understandable, I doubt Skip Bayless could even name five NFL offensive linemen. 

Just don't forget about the link between Howard and Sanchez. The emergence of an offensive tackle few have even heard of may have saved the career of New York's favorite embattled quarterback, and, in turn, his team's entire season.