In just a few hours, the New York Jets will officially start their 50th season of professional football. There was a common element in each of the franchise's previous 49 openers — each man who started at quarterback had previous pro experience on his résumé.
But that will change today in Houston's Reliant Stadium as the Jets line up against the Texans.
"Don't blow it, right? It's great," said rookie signalcaller Mark Sanchez. "It's a tremendous honor and I'm excited to play for this team and this organization. There's a lot of history here, rich history and rich tradition. To carry that on, I hold that dear to my heart and I'm ready to go out and put on a show versus Houston. It's going to be a fun experience and I think we'll do all right."
You knew it wouldn't take long for the Sanchez Era to begin in Gotham after the Jets traded three veteran players — S Abe Elam, DE Kenyon Coleman and QB Brett Ratliff — and the 17th and 52nd overall selections to Cleveland to move up 12 spots in the first round to get No. 6 with the fifth overall selection in the '09 draft.
A training camp QB competition followed up in Cortland, N.Y. Rookie head coach Rex Ryan let Sanchez, the Southern Cal product, and Kellen Clemens, now a four-year vet, battle it out for more than four weeks before he tabbed the rook for starting duties on Aug. 26 before the Jets' third preseason outing.
"I feel like a lot of things have happened that have been out of my control that have really gone my way, some real breaks," he said. "Just coming to an organization like this where they're willing to put trust in a rookie quarterback like myself and being around veteran leadership like [Alan] Faneca and on defense we have guys like Bart Scott and Kris Jenkins. Guys like that who've really helped me along and aren't afraid to reach out to a young guy like me and show me the ropes."
Ryan, also entering uncharted waters, doesn't want Sanchez to do anything out of the ordinary.
"My thing is go out and have fun. Do what you've done all your life," Ryan said. "Just go out and be yourself. Help lead this football team and be the guy we drafted. That's it."
Witnessing Sanchez throughout August and into September, both in practices and games, you saw a lot to like. He has a strong arm and terrific feet, he plays with passion and he has the intangibles that make scouts drool.
But while Sanchez led seven scoring drives (five touchdowns and two field goals) on 16 preseason possessions, the defenses won't be as vanilla anymore starting today, and teams are probably going to stack men in the box and dare Sanchez to beat them downfield.
"I expect him to hold his own. He's a talented young guy and it's hard to believe he's a rookie," said Leon Washington. "He carries himself as a guy who's already been here. He expected to be here and he knows he belongs here. At practice, I'm not thinking in my mind, 'This is just a rookie.' He's making the play call and he's getting everybody in position. We don't need him to be a rookie the opening game. We need him to be a vet out there, and I think he'll be that."
Unlike many quarterbacks who are drafted high, Sanchez won't be asked to turn around the franchise. The Jets won nine games last year, added a number of key pieces in free agency including the likes of ILB Bart Scott and S Jim Leonhard, and have an outstanding offensive line and run game.
"We'll let T.J. [Thomas Jones] and Leon soften everybody up and then I'll come in and close the deal. That's the blueprint of this offense," Sanchez said. "We are a great running team, we have an unbelievable ground game. So why try to change anything like that?
"Let's be smart with the football, let's throw the ball when we need to, and when we need to, make a completion. We can do it. I think we've showed a little bit of that in the preseason and we're only going to build from that. As my confidence climbs and climbs and gets even better, then maybe we'll air it out a little bit more. But whatever this team needs to win, I think that's the overall goal — whether we throw it 30 times or rush it 30 times. As long as we get those W's, we'll be set."
It's in Houston where Sanchez, Ryan and the Jets will seek liftoff. And the young quarterback makes no bones about it — he's reaching for the stars.
"It's been just a heck of an experience and I'm grateful to be a Jet. The sky's the limit for this team," he said. "I think it's going to be a special year for us. I'm just trying to pull my weight around here and we'll see how things go."