The Jets are not worried about Mark Sanchez. They are so not worried. They even seem to practice being not worried. On the very first pass of their first preseason game, Sanchez, the second-year quarterback whose performance might determine whether the Jets' season ends in Dallas (site of the Super Bowl) or in disappointment, threw an interception that Giants defensive back Antrel Rolle returned for a near touchdown. It was an imprudent decision—the intended receiver, LaDainian Tomlinson, was sandwiched between a linebacker and a safety—compounded by an inaccurate throw, slightly behind LT.
The play could not have been more ominous, since it was so reminiscent of the mistakes Sanchez made during the down parts of his up-and-down rookie season, when he threw 20 picks and 12 touchdown passes. But if any of his teammates were thinking the obvious, they were careful not to let on. They slapped him on the pads more than if he had thrown for an 80-yard score. "Just an exhibition game," backup quarterback Mark Brunell told him, more than once. Brunell didn't break into song, as he did when Sanchez threw a pick in a training camp scrimmage. "What's that Van Halen song?" Sanchez says. "He started singing it to me. 'I get up, and nothing gets me down ... You got to ro-o-oll with the punches... .' "
The song was Jump, by Van Halen, and the Jets would probably sign David Lee Roth to sing it if they thought it would help Sanchez navigate the season's rough patches more smoothly than he did as a rookie. They have tried to give him everything he needs to succeed, from new weapons like Tomlinson at running back and wideout Santonio Holmes to additional mentors like the 39-year-old Brunell.
But worry? The tough-talking, f-bombing Jets don't do worry. They will let others wonder about the obvious questions. Did Sanchez's gritty, intelligent performances in the postseason last year, when he helped propel the Jets to the AFC Championship Game, mark the blossoming of a young star? Or is he an erratic young QB who has been overhyped because he has more charisma than any New York quarterback since Joe Namath, dates women most of us only see on TV screens, and rode the coattails of a strong defense and running attack to within a game of the Super Bowl?
Maybe yes is the answer to both questions. Sanchez is a quarterback of some contradictions. He seems utterly confident, yet he tends to internalize his mistakes so much that as he sat morosely in front of his locker after a loss to the Bills last year, receiver Braylon Edwards told him, "Pick your head up. I don't want guys to see you like that." He's sophisticated enough to be a presenter at the Tony Awards but lowbrow enough that afterward he would have dined at Taco Bell. His dark good looks make him appear suave in photo shoots, but he's been known to ask his followers on Twitter which Disney movie he should rent for the evening. "Lion King? Aladdin? Jungle Book? Peter Pan? Help?!" he once tweeted.
"He can be goofy," says nosetackle Kris Jenkins. "He's one of those California surfer-type dudes."
But Sanchez is deadly serious about his responsibility. What the Jets are asking of him would be a heavy load on any 23-year-old's psyche. They merely want him to run the show for a Super Bowl contender in the league's toughest media market in front of fans who have been emotionally scarred because their team's most promising seasons always seem to end in heartbreak. No wonder Jets coach Rex Ryan tries to make the task sound less daunting. "We don't need him to be the second coming of Joe Namath," Ryan says. "We just need him to take the next step in his development, to build on the good things he did last season."
It would also help if Sanchez can drastically reduce the bad things he did, like the five interceptions he threw in that loss to Buffalo or the four he tossed when the Jets lost at New England. Games like those are why he ranked near the bottom of the league with a 63.0 quarterback rating (28th) and a 53.8 completion percentage (29th). Sanchez more than atoned in the playoffs, when he played efficiently (only one pick) in victories at Cincinnati and San Diego and made some star-caliber throws, including a perfectly tossed 80-yard touchdown bomb to Edwards in the AFC title-game loss to the Colts.
But he knows his overall performance last year makes him the wild card in the Jets' deck. He seems totally unintimidated by that; no one believes in Sanchez more than Sanchez. "I want the responsibility to make this thing work," he says. "I'm not going to shy away. Sophomore slump? Let's go. I'll show you. We want to get to the Super Bowl, and we need a quarterback who can get us there. I believe I am that quarterback."
There are plenty of signs that Sanchez is that quarterback. He does the things that leaders do, like paying the way for several of his receivers to join him for off-season passing workouts, dubbed Jets West, at his old high school in Mission Viejo, Calif., and putting in long hours of film study. He also has a feel for making just the right gesture. When Sanchez was invited to a state dinner at the White House in May, instead of taking a female companion, he brought his left tackle, D'Brickashaw Ferguson. When Tomlinson visited team headquarters as a free agent, Sanchez had a gift delivered, a piece of crystal with a Jets insignia. "It was a great touch, a way of him saying that they really wanted me here," Tomlinson says. "It told me a lot about the organization and a lot about him."
The issue then is not so much whether Sanchez can be a top-flight NFL quarterback but whether he can become one right now, when the Jets seem to be Super Bowl--caliber in every other area. "Don't see why not," says linebacker Bart Scott. "Don't worry about number 6. He works. He's tough. He's a leader. He'll be fine."
Ryan said during camp that Sanchez made more progress from last year than any other Jet. But in preseason games the QB continued to make poor decisions and inaccurate throws. In addition to his Giants disaster, he tossed an ugly red-zone pick in a loss to the Redskins. And last week Sanchez, who had off-season surgery on his left knee, said that he will wear a brace all season, though he finds it uncomfortable.
Those issues aside, Sanchez believes he has been groomed for this—not necessarily to lead a team to a Super Bowl but to take charge of something, to steer someone to success. The lessons in leadership started early for Mark and his two older brothers, Brandon and Nick Jr. When their father, Nick Sr., dropped them off at school, his last words before they shut the car door were often, "Be a leader today."
"He and my mom wanted us to realize that it was O.K. to step forward or stand out," Sanchez says. "They were huge on us being first in line on field trips, encouraging us to be the ones to ask questions in class or be the first one to go up to the front of the room to give our book report. Now when I have to be the center of attention, I'm comfortable. I've been doing it all my life."
Nick Sr., an Orange County fire captain, often brought his boys to the station, where they developed an appreciation for the importance of keeping calm under pressure. He also gave them some unusual duties, like having them recite multiplication tables or spelling words while dribbling a basketball. "I wanted them to train their minds to handle more than one thing at once," says Nick Sr. "Part of the plan was to put them in somewhat stressful situations where they had to perform both mentally and physically at the same time." Not quite as stressful as staying calm enough to find your third receiver while a 280-pound lineman closes in, but good multitasking preparation nonetheless.
It's probably for the best that as a California kid Sanchez might not fully appreciate the force of history he is going against: Things just have a way of not working out for the Jets. It's as if they used generations' worth of good karma with Namath's famous Super Bowl III upset. They haven't been back since, of course, and some of their most devastating seasons have come when expectations have been highest. Their circumstances this year, for instance, are eerily similar to those of 1999, the last time they had serious preseason Super Bowl buzz around them.
The Jets had reached the AFC Championship Game the previous season, just as they did last year. They had held a halftime lead in the game (3--0 over Denver), just as they did last year, when they led the Colts 17--13. The Broncos shut them out for most of the second half, just as Indianapolis did last year, and sent New York home. The following season, just like this one, all the pieces seemed to be in place for the Jets to take the final step. But in the second quarter of the first game of '99, quarterback Vinny Testaverde tore his Achilles tendon, and all the optimism disappeared. The Jets finished 8--8.
But there are ways to combat the feeling that the franchise is forever doomed. Ryan has started to sweep it out with a cocky attitude that has spread among the players. The less noticeable part of the equation involves hard, unglamorous work, which Sanchez has been more than willing to undertake. During the off-season he had several film sessions with ex--NFL quarterback Rich Gannon, who was known for his thorough preparation. "We would watch tape for hours, until eight, nine o'clock at night," Gannon says. "Before we'd head home, I'd ask him what time he wanted to meet the next day, and he'd say, 'How about 6 a.m.?' Good sign."
It was all part of Sanchez's effort to improve at the mental part of the game. A year ago he knew enough to operate the offense, but he never mastered it. He leaned on the Jets' offensive line to handle protection schemes and other nuances. He's sure that with a better grasp of what his linemen are doing, he can cut down on the 26 sacks he suffered last year. "Did I know exactly what was going on with every single play?" Sanchez says. "I'd be lying if I said I did. That's when you have to act a little bit. You have to look guys in the eye and project total confidence even if you don't completely feel it."
Acting should come easily to a Southern California kid who has a touch of Broadway flair. But, the Jets hope, this is the season when Sanchez can truly act natural. What will that mean for them? "We should be really good," Sanchez says, "if we can get our QB in order." He was smiling when he said it. He didn't look worried. Not at all.
The Jets went 8--7 in games Mark Sanchez—the No. 5 pick in last year's draft—started during the 2009 regular season and reached the AFC Championship Game. Sanchez was the seventh first-round pick since 1970 to make all or all but one of his team's starts at QB as a rookie. Here's how the first six fared in their second seasons.