"Small world" storylines are big in the sports realm. Players and coaches are constantly running into people they used to play with, against, under and over.
But today's Jets-Saints game is extreme even by those standards. There'll be a confluence of quarterbacks in the Superdome later this afternoon.
And one of the QBs — actually the one-time Kansas and Florida backup who is now the Jets' offensive coordinator, Brian Schottenheimer — has close ties to both the quarterback he's coaching, first-round rookie extraordinaire Mark Sanchez, and the guy the Jets will try to hold off in this game, the Saints' Drew Brees.
Schottenheimer was asked how many times in the course of a week that he mentions Brees' name in the Jets' offensive meeting room.
"They probably get tired of it," Coach Schotty said. "I mention it quite a bit. It's just because of the way I feel about the guy."
Schottenheimer was Brees' QB coach in San Diego from 2002-05. Both left the Chargers after the '05 season but still talk regularly, sometimes weekly. When Brees' mother died this summer, Schottenheimer left training camp for a few days to attend the funeral.
Schotty was perhaps even responsible for positioning that chip on Brees' shoulder. He wasn't the one who drafted Philip Rivers in the first round in 2004, but he was the one who first broke the news of that possibility to the former Purdue signalcaller.
"I remember talking to Drew the day before we drafted Philip," Schottenheimer said. "He said, 'Are we going to get that tackle [Robert Gallery]?' I said, 'Drew, I'm going to be honest with you here. We're probably going to take a quarterback.'
"I'm never going to forget the look on his face. He said, 'That will be the worst decision this organization ever makes.' His eyes kind of glossed over and he went out the next year and had a stellar year. That just speaks to the type of competitor he is."
Sizing Up the Signalcallers
Which brings us to this matchup with Sanchez, who's proven himself to be one heck of a competitor in the first three games of his pro career with the Jets. Brees is reprising his remarkable '08 season, when he passed for 5,069 yards, just 15 shy of Dan Marino's NFL record set in 1984, by opening 3-0 at the Saints' helm and leading all QBs with nine touchdown passes and a 118.1 passer rating.
Sanchez's individual numbers are more modest (four TD passes, 87.7 rating), but his 3-0 record is just as gaudy and his four pieces of hardware in his first three weeks as a pro (three awards for Pepsi NFL Rookie of the Week, one for NFL Rookie of the Month) suggest that someday soon he can be flying as high as Brees is, in the stratosphere of pro signalcallers.
The two competitors sized each other up from afar in the past week. Both like what they see.
"I've been impressed with Mark. I think he's done a great job," Brees said. "I know the demands that Brian's putting on him as far as the time and process to being successful he's putting him through. I have a lot of respect for what he's trying to accomplish so far, especially as a rookie quarterback when you're head can be spinning at times."
Sanchez, asked what he admires about what he's seen of Brees, had a long list.
"Pocket movement. The way he gets the ball down the field in a hurry. Especially for a smaller guy, the vision he has. The way he can feel the rush and move, I admire that," Sanchez said. "He takes care of the football and still throws for 300 yards a game, it seems like. He's one of the all-time best and really fun to watch. I'll try not to get too star-struck."
Brees has already arguably helped out Sanchez's career with another one of those "small world" connections: Saints pass-game coordinator John Morton was the Southern Cal WRs coach when Sanchez was a Trojan.
"We'd watch Brees all the time," Sanchez recalled. "Seeing him in the pocket is something special."
The two will be tested to avoid developments in this game that will prevent their team from rising to 4-0. For Sanchez, the theme this week has been ball security. Despite his massive mitts — his hand span at the NFL Combine was reportedly 10½ inches — he could have lost an opening touchdown vs. the Titans when he just broke the goal line plane before the ball was swatted from his right hand, and he suffered a strip sack later in the game due to another one-handed hold.
Getting a Grip on Things
"He has to learn to keep two hands on the ball," Schottenheimer said. "That is something he and [QBs coach] Matt Cavanaugh have been working on a lot, doing different drills. He is aware of it. When things get going, he tends to drop the ball low. We told him, 'The scouting report is out on you.' Defensive players and coordinators are going to talk about 'When you get around this guy, start looking for the ball and swat it out.' "
"It has started to get a lot worse," Sanchez explained, "because a lot of those fundamental things, you just are so busy trying to learn the offense, you start playing and you start to get comfortable and then before you know it, you see it on film and you know you have to correct that. ... We just need to nip that in the bud and move on."
But how to nip Brees in the bud? Now in his ninth year, he's seen it all. Plus he has a stable of talented receivers, all of whom he spreads the ball around to — and five of whom have caught his nine TD passes. And the Jets will be without injured corners Lito Sheppard and Donald Strickland for a second straight game.
No one has divulged the game plan, of course, but it wouldn't be surprising to see the Green & White defense go after Brees similar to how they went after Tom Brady in Week 2, trying to pressure and hit him if not sack him, get him out of the pocket and out of his comfort zone.
Although the Jets game-plan for each foe, LB Bart Scott reminded this week that "We don't adjust. We do what we do. We respect the opponent, but we're not going to change the way we play for an opponent. We have to believe in our system like they believe in theirs."
Schottenheimer was asked about any similarities he noticed in his two protégés.
"When I first met Mark, he reminded me, in personality, a lot of Drew. That is a great compliment to Mark because Drew is a special friend of mine. Their energy, their enthusiasm, love of the game, their leadership ability. There are some similarities on the football field. Both have quick feet. They are not the tallest guys in the world but they move around pretty well. Both are very accurate passers. Mark probably gets tired of me talking about Drew, but I am awfully proud of what he's done."
But Schottenheimer is proud of Sanchez as well. And in the NFL, friendship often takes a back seat for three hours every Sunday. Which means Coach Schotty may have spent as much time in the Jets' defensive meeting room in the past week talking about Brees as he did in the offensive room talking him up.