How Mark Sanchez Went from Prime Time to Punchline

Ryan Alfieri@Ryan_AlfieriCorrespondent IIIJune 23, 2013

“He should’ve stayed for another year.”

USC head coach Pete Carroll was using this awkward press conference as a last-ditch effort to retain his quarterback that won him a Rose Bowl last year, calling out the young Mark Sanchez at a time when most coaches would be wishing their players good fortune.

Yes, as strange as it sounds, there was a time in which people were willing to pay a lot of money and put their careers on the line to let Mark Sanchez throw footballs for them.

As it turned out, Carroll was dead-on in his public assessment of Sanchez’s readiness—even if his motives were more self-centered.

Now over four years removed from the day the Jets made the franchise-altering move to select him, Sanchez’s name has become synonymous with failure and ineptitude. Now, thanks to organizational implosion, the Jets would not be able to find a trading partner for Sanchez if they were asking for a bag of dirty jockstraps in return.

It was not always this way: Sanchez’s career was once filled with optimism after taking the Jets deep into the playoffs in his first two seasons. Sanchez was supposed to be this generation's “Broadway Joe”, the guiding force of an organization that, like Namath himself, did things a little differently with his bravado and aggressive nature.

Now, Sanchez’s legacy in New York has been reduced to a collision with a guard’s backside—the perfect metaphor for everything that has gone wrong for Sanchez in the past three years.

What could have possibly happened to bring Sanchez down so far in such a short amount of time? First, we must understand where Sanchez came from to create the basis of the man he is today.


The Man Behind the Six

Mark’s parents divorced when he was just four years old, and his father, Nick, raised Mark and his two brothers, Nick and Brandon.

Mark’s dad was a huge influence on his athletic career. Nick would put Mark through drills that would test his mind and his body at the same time. For example, Mark would recite multiplication tables while dribbling a basketball with a blindfold. While he was waiting for a pitch to arrive, his father would quiz him on the periodic table.

A quarterback does not need to be able to do any of those specific things on a football field, but Mark developed the ability to think and act at the same time with minimal reaction time—a necessary trait for any quarterback.

This unique-yet-effective training paid off, as Sanchez was the nation’s top quarterback coming out of Mission Viejo High School and committed to USC in 2004.

As a prospect, Sanchez was known more for his advanced mechanics and decision-making than his raw talents as a passer—traits that can succeed in college but limit one’s ability in the NFL.

Because of the presence of Matt Leinart and John David Booty, Sanchez did not become the team’s full-time starter until his redshirt junior season. However, the gap between Sanchez starting one and three full seasons at USC was decided by a training camp battle between Leinart and Sanchez that went down to the wire.

Ultimately, Sanchez played well enough in his senior season to take USC to the Rose Bowl and land near the top of NFL draft boards the following spring.


From the City of Angels to the Big Apple

The difference between Mark Sanchez winding up in the biggest city in the world and the middle of the Great Plains was razor-thin.

Sanchez, who was widely regarded as the next-best quarterback prospect behind Georgia’s Matthew Stafford, was the guy the Jets determined they had to walk away from the draft with—at the right price.

Why Sanchez? The Jets already had a talented roster that was capable of winning now, and Sanchez was viewed as the most “pro-ready” quarterback of the draft, even if he lacked the elite passing skills possessed by Matthew Stafford and Kansas State’s Josh Freeman.

After the Lions drafted Stafford first, Sanchez was free game to the highest bidder willing to jump into the top five to grab him. The biggest obstacle were the Rams, who sat at No. 2 and were also without a franchise quarterback of their own.

Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum was in contact with the Rams about moving up for Sanchez, but the asking price would have been crippling for the Jets. At the same time, putting a price on a franchise quarterback is tricky business, and the Jets debated on whether or not it was worth it to make such an aggressive move for Sanchez.

Ultimately, the Jets called the Rams' bluff, as they ended up taking Baylor tackle (and future Jet) Jason Smith.

Meanwhile, the Jets had already worked out a trade with the Browns before the draft—with Jets backup safety Abe Elam as the key component to the trade. With the paperwork ready to be filed, the Jets had no choice now but to sit and wait.

“The Kansas City Chiefs select…Tyson Jackson…”

“The Seattle Seahawks select…Aaron Curry…”

As soon as Roger Goodell pronounced the soft “a” in Aaron Curry’s name, Mark Sanchez was a Jet.

Smiles, fist pumps and high-fives ensued on both sides—with neither having any idea what they were getting themselves into.


The Rocky Rookie Season

Few teams have ever been as aggressive at the quarterback position than Mike Tannenbaum was in his early tenure as general manager. After all, the Jets were on the heels of a season with Brett Favre as their quarterback—drafting a quarterback fifth overall is a dull move by comparison.

While the drama in New York had toned down (for now), the expectations for Sanchez remained sky-high. Sanchez was the highest-drafted quarterback since the Jets took Namath first overall in 1965, and the Jets had a roster capable of winning games in the immediate future.

After watching Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco take their teams to the playoffs as rookies a year prior, the typical rookie excuses would be limited for the spry Californian who was still trying to get used to life without In-And-Out Burger down the block.

After battling second-round disappointment Kellen Clemens in training camp, Sanchez won the starting job, almost by default. The battle was closer than the media portrayed it to be—Clemens was listed as the starter going into camp—but Sanchez was going to get the job if the battle was even close.

Essentially, the Jets were trying to mimic the Ravens’ model of success, who were coming off an AFC Championship Game with a rookie quarterback of their own. They even hired their former defensive coordinator, Rex Ryan, as head coach to bring a dominant defense to New York.

The first three weeks could not have gone much better for Sanchez and the Jets, going 3-0 without allowing a defensive touchdown until the middle of the third matchup against the Titans. Sanchez beat Tom Brady in front of his home crowd, and the comparisons to Namath were becoming more valid by the week.

As the season progressed, Sanchez eventually came back down to earth and began to play more like the rookie with one year of experience at USC than a seasoned veteran. The team dropped to 4-6, after another late-season loss to the Falcons. Even Rex Ryan could not help but declare the Jets out of the playoffs before they were mathematically eliminated.

The Jets managed to catch fire, finishing 9-7 (thanks in part to the Colts benching their starters) to sneak into the playoffs.

Following a convincing win over the Bengals in the Wild Card Round, few thought it would be possible for the Jets to get the upset over the heavily favored Chargers, who boasted one of the best offenses in football.

The Jets had done their best to hide their quarterback all season long behind their defense and running game, but when you get deep into the playoffs against the top teams in the league, your quarterback has to make critical throws when the chips are down and the game is on the line.

The game was tightly played, with the Jets’ defense getting the better of the San Diego offensive juggernaut, but Sanchez and the offense were mostly ineffective—until Jim Leonhard intercepted an errant Phillip Rivers pass to set them up for the go-ahead score.

Sanchez would respond with a 3rd-and-goal pass that few rookies would dream of attempting. Mark hit his favorite target, Dustin Keller, on the run between a pack of Chargers in the back right corner of the end zone.

Sanchez had his critics for his consistency, but when the Jets needed him most, he delivered—which would become a theme of Mark’s play over the next year.

This game encapsulated everything that was right about the Jets at the time. Sanchez was playing his role as a caretaker, making the handful of plays that took advantage of his strengths needed to win the game, such as throwing on the run.

The Jets would eventually lose in the AFC Championship to the juggernaut Colts, but there was a noticeable difference in Sanchez’s game from the middle of the season. Mark grew up in these playoffs, and the Jets appeared to be in good hands for years to come with their unique duo of a boisterous coach and gunslinger quarterback.


The Hard-Knock Life

By their nature, human beings tend to get just as much excitement out of the anticipation of a moment than they do in the moment itself. For example, anyone would be excited about buying a new car, but once you roll it out of the lot, the car instantly loses its value as a “new” car, and the harsh realities of the car’s flaws begin to set in.

For Jets fans, their “new car” was the 2010 Jets roster—which had enough talent to be a Ferrari, with Sanchez as the driver.

After adding a slew of talented players in Santonio Holmes and Antonio Cromartie while getting Kris Jenkins back from an ACL injury, the Jets had the most complete roster in the NFL.

Expectations for the 2010 season were as high as ever, but not just for the immediate future. The “rookie” label was removed from Sanchez’s profile, and the time was now for Sanchez to take the step from being a liability to a being a catalyst of production—with the whole world watching his progression on HBO’s Hard Knocks every week.

In this brief, sweet moment, the Jets had clear direction within their organization. No one knew what would become of Sanchez, but it was clear that the Jets had their guy that they believed would take them to a place they have not been in over 40 years.

As Sanchez told the car salesman at Toyota, there was no question that he was the man for the job:

“Are you Mark Sanchez, the quarterback?”

“Yeah. That’s me, “ Sanchez said without the slightest hesitation.

Sanchez was talking to an actor in a silly car commercial, but he may as well have had a microphone on him in a packed MetLife Stadium.

Great expectations were met with great disappointment in the season opener, as Sanchez mustered up a grand total of 60 yards passing in the loss to Baltimore.

The following week, as everyone predicted, Sanchez threw three touchdowns to beat Tom Brady in New York for the second straight year.

This “Jekyll and Hyde” model of consistency became a common theme throughout Sanchez’s career. One moment, Sanchez looks like he still belongs at Mission Viejo High, overwhelmed by the enormity of playing quarterback in a city like New York.

A week later, and Sanchez is kicking Hall of Famers out of his own building, and the original excitement that has surrounded Sanchez since his rookie season returns.

Despite their 11-5 record, the Jets were seldom a dominant team that took care of inferior opponents as their talent suggested they could. Heroic comeback victories against the Lions, Browns and Texans—all involving spectacular plays from Santonio Holmes (hence the phrase “Tone Time”)—saved the Jets from ending their season on a disappointing note of historic proportions.

Still, as many times as Sanchez put the team in desperate situations, he always made the throws when the Jets needed it the most—a trait that would turn out to be both a blessing and a curse to the franchise.

Despite their signature win in Foxborough against the 14-2 Patriots in the divisional round, the Jets season ended the exact way it did a year ago in the AFC Championship Game, this time at the hands of Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers.

While it was only his second season as a pro, deep in the heart of the organization it was clear that Sanchez was never going to be the next Joe Namath. As a coping mechanism, Sanchez was constantly praised for his ability to “win games” and “play in the clutch”—nice traits to have, but impossible to rely on game in and game out.

While the Jets would cling to the few hollow strengths Sanchez possessed, they would ultimately pay heavily for doubling-down on their religious-like devotion to his intangible qualities.


The Road to Turmoil

As disappointed as they were after coming so close to reaching the Super Bowl for the first time since Super Bowl III, the entire Jets organization began to carry themselves as if it was just a matter of time before a second Lombardi trophy was put on display in Florham Park.

By now, Rex Ryan’s boisterous personality had spread throughout an organization that was once filled with button-up, paranoid “nerds” of the Mangini era. In a two-year span, the organization ditched the taped-up glasses and pocket protectors, popped their collar and broke out the Ray Bans.

The Jets were “cool” again, and they could do no wrong.

Or so they thought.

At this point, Ryan and Tannenbaum were convinced that they could turn every troubled player into a superstar, tinker with their roster to no end and bring on distractions that would cripple most teams.

As a result, they turned around to give Santonio Holmes a massive contract extension, released longtime leader Jerricho Cotchery and signed Plaxico Burress with the stench of prison cells still fresh in his clothes.

Now, with a brand new receiving corps, the Jets expected Sanchez to transform himself from being a caretaker to the driving force of the offense. The infamous “ground and pound” approach was over—for now.

After a shaky 2-2 start that featured an offensive display in Baltimore that would have been embarrassing in 1945, it became apparent that Sanchez was not the quarterback the Jets had tricked themselves into believing he would become. Sanchez was not capable of being the key element of an offense, especially with unfamiliar receivers on the roster.

In a desperate attempt to turn the season around, Ryan tried correcting his mistake by reverting to the run-first approach that spawned their success in the previous two years.

While the arrogance of the “ground and pound” attitude was missing, the team was able to get back into playoff position, sitting at 8-6 as they prepared for a virtual must-win Christmas Eve matchup against their stadium roommates, the New York Giants—a game that would change the fortune of both franchises for years to come.

The Jets-Giants rivalry has always been difficult to characterize. Having not won a Super Bowl in over 40 years, the Jets were clearly the secondary team that were forced to play in “Giants Stadium” for so many years.

This Cold War-like relationship never took off into something different, as they only met in the regular season every four years.

However, the success of the Jets under Rex Ryan combined with the Giants' failures during the same stretch made the Giants’ seat on the New York throne very uncomfortable. Slowly, the city was adding a touch of yellow to its blue colors, and the Jets had become the talk of the town as the antithesis to the Giants’ bland way of doing business.

The Jets took an early lead and appeared to be in control of the game. The Giants offense was backed up just inches in front of its own goal line.

Then, the unthinkable happened.

Phenom slot receiver Victor Cruz caught an innocent “out” pattern, broke a tackle and outran a hobbling Eric Smith for the 99-yard score.

The play was a perfect metaphor for everything that was wrong with the organization at the time. The Jets were arrogant enough to play an aggressive press-man coverage in the situation and were heavily reliant on an overmatched player in Eric Smith.

Still, the Jets had ample opportunities to win the game near the end, but this time, Sanchez’s “poise” and “Tone Time” failed to show up. Sanchez was strip-sacked on the final drive, and for all intents and purposes, it was curtains on the Jets’ season.

The Giants won the game; within about six weeks, they were crowned world champions.

While they were getting their rings fitted, Sanchez and the Jets were controlling a full-blown organizational implosion.


Anonymous Implosion

They say there is nothing like winning in New York; this may be true, but there is also no worse place to be a loser than in the biggest media market on the planet.

The Jets finished 8-8 in 2011, but if you didn’t watch the Jets all year, you would have assumed they went 2-14 and were caught in a point-shaving scandal given the sheer volume of negative stories that emerged from Florham Park that winter.

Predictably, Sanchez was to carry the burden of the blame as the starting quarterback with the big fat paycheck, but the criticism went far beyond what happened between the lines.

Several players, speaking on the cowardly condition of anonymity, attacked Sanchez on a personal level, calling him “lazy” and that he “looked defeated.” These players also referenced the fact that the organization was “babying him” and giving him a “sense of entitlement.” They also expressed their desire to sign soon-to-be free agent Peyton Manning.

No one will know for sure if these perceptions were reality or if Sanchez was just the target of frustration, but it became clear that the days of Sanchez being the uncontested starter should be over. The team needed to bring in outside competition to truly challenge Sanchez for the job, or at least make him feel the heat all summer long so that he would be ready for the fire in the fall.

As it turns out, the Jets did bring in quarterback help from the outside—but it was probably not what these anonymous players had in mind.


Tebow Time

At this point, the Jets’ brand had already begun to wear stains, but nothing will define the collapse of the Jets more so than the acquisition of Tim Tebow.

Looking at it from a pure football perspective, the move actually makes plenty of sense. For a fourth-round pick, the Jets brought in an athletic, multi-dimensional quarterback who was a former first-round pick.

However, acquiring Tebow is a transaction reserved only for the bold (a trait the Jets clearly have) and the prepared (which the Jets most certainly were not).

Bringing in Tebow was never meant to strike up a quarterback controversy between a man with no confidence who could throw versus the most confident man in America with a prehistoric delivery.

Tebow was meant to be another club in the bag, a weapon the Jets could use when Sanchez was playing like, well, Sanchez.

To make a long story short, the Jets were the most anti-climactic disaster in the NFL. They had no real plan for Tebow, Sanchez continued to regress (leading the league in turnovers), and a series of bad drafts had begun to show their ugly warts.

The Jets went 6-10, but they put on offensive displays on a weekly basis that would make fans cringe. Constant cries for Tebow and piling injuries only attracted unwanted attention to a franchise that once thought it was incapable of making a bad decision.

Owner Woody Johnson had heard enough of the weekly boo-fest, and Mike Tannenbaum was fired on New Year’s Eve—symbolic of the Jets trying to push the “reset” button on their tainted franchise.

It would be easy to pin Sanchez’s regression on the Tebow distraction, but in reality, it was a combination of things that have led to Sanchez’s miraculous fall from grace.

For one, the Jets’ offensive personnel would be laughed out of the SEC, never mind the AFC East. The only established weapons on the team, Santonio Holmes and Dustin Keller, missed the majority of the season due to injury. As a result, the Jets trotted out players like Clyde Gates, who was cut from the Dolphins training camp, and Chaz Schilens, a Raiders castoff.

To compound matters, offensive coordinator Tony Sparano ran an offense that was hardly friendly for quarterbacks, forcing Sanchez to make difficult, downfield throws to practice squad-caliber receivers.

When you combine these factors with the Tebow distraction, the Jets could have written a thesis on how not to bring along a young quarterback into the NFL.


Sanchez’s Future

To say that Sanchez’s future as a starting quarterback in the NFL looks bleak would be an understatement. The disastrous 2012 season has stripped Sanchez of the luxury of being the undisputed starter going into training camp.

The good news is that Sanchez no longer has to deal with the ridiculousness of Tebowmania, which has migrated north to the rival Patriots. The bad news is that for the first time in his career, Sanchez will face real competition from Geno Smith—but this time, the organization will not give him the benefit of the doubt like they did in his rookie season.

So far, the competition has been described as “lukewarm” at best, with both quarterbacks failing to gain sizeable ground in the competition.

There is a lot to learn from the Shakespearian tragedy that has become of Mark Sanchez’s career. This is a classic tale of an organization forcing a player to become something he was not, convincing themselves that Sanchez was the second coming of Namath simply because they wanted him to be.

Over and over, the Jets tried to convince themselves that Sanchez was a “winner” and a player who was always at his best when it mattered most. They lost sight of the fact that winning games does not make a player great; rather, great players win games.

The Jets lived in a state of delusion, forcing the “Sanchize” to be a caliber of player he simply was never meant to be.

The Jets did Sanchez no favors when they continually tinkered with his supporting cast and were about as decisive with their offensive philosophy as a teenage girl picking out nail polish.

The downfall of Sanchez is a paradigm of a combined “effort” between an organization that had no pulse on the talent of its roster (including Sanchez) and a quarterback that was never quite talented enough to overcome the constant change and unending pressure of playing in New York.

Now, Sanchez, whom the Jets were hoping would become this generation’s Joe Namath, is a broken player beyond repair.

The most tragic part of Sanchez’s tale is that he is a genuine, high-character person who always maintains levelheadedness. Even now, with his career and legacy on the brink of destruction, he keeps the game and his well-being in perspective.

After all, if not being a superstar quarterback for a marquee NFL franchise is hardly something to be shameful of. Even as a failed experiment in New York, Sanchez has accomplished a tremendous amount in the football realm in a short period of time.

Is Sanchez’s career salvageable? Perhaps—maybe the real competition from Geno Smith, something the organization should have utilized years ago, will bring the best out of Mark. At worst, Sanchez has enough ability and experience to be the next Kyle Orton as a long-term backup or a stopgap starter for a long time.

Either way, getting Mark back on track to being a franchise-caliber quarterback is certainly going to be more difficult than reciting multiplication tables in the batter's box.


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