When the Jets take the field Sunday night against the Cowboys, QB Mark Sanchez will begin his third year as an NFL starting quarterback. The third year is often considered the tipping point in the NFL, establishing a player's reputation.
After taking the Jets to two consecutive AFC Championship Games, Sanchez hopes to push even further this season, and he knows the weight on his throwing shoulder is a bit heavier in 2011.
"The quarterback has to be good, has to be solid," Sanchez said today at the Atlantic Health Jets Training Center. "This year is no different. If anything, it's gotten more intense and more important for me to be accurate."
Dallas' 26th-ranked pass defense was porous last season and the Cowboys were 31st in points allowed. Although the 'Boys secondary is banged up entering Week 1, the Jets aren't about to look past them.
"We don't want to change too much," said Sanchez. "Whoever suits up for them, we need to be ready to play. We have plenty of clips of their defensive backs, and they all look good. We just have to be smart, be accurate with the football, and don't give them a chance to make too many plays."
Accuracy has been a focal point for Sanchez since the start of camp. In his rookie season, he posted a completion percentage of 53.8 percent, and threw 12 touchdowns to 20 interceptions. His accuracy improved slightly last year to 54.8, but his 20 TDs and 12 INTs were a more welcome sight. This season he hopes to be even better.
"There's been an emphasis on trying not to force it in, not trying to make a great throw or a great play," he said. "It's just going through my progression, being confident like I am and getting completions when I can."
The QB situation behind Sanchez has changed since the preseason.
In August, Greg McElroy made tremendous strides, finishing the preseason as the league's second-best rookie passer rating. But a thumb dislocation and surgery landed McElroy on IR, leaving only veteran QB Mark Brunell behind Sanchez. The 19-year veteran did not take a snap in the preseason due to finger and calf injuries, but he fully intends to be the backup come Sunday. He was listed today as being limited for team drills in the Jets' fieldhouse practice.
To augment the offensive attack led by the QBs, the Jets brought in two veteran receivers in Plaxico Burress and Derrick Mason. With their talents come 25 years of combined NFL experience, which will prove to be valuable for an offense that hopes to air it out more in 2011.
"These guys are great," said Brunell. "Great additions to our team. In the locker room, on the field, these guys have been huge for us. We're thrilled to have them, and they're going to be difference-makers."
Sanchez agreed, but emphasized that his play would also have to mature in order to make the most of the new targets.
"They've been around this league a long time, and they've been with a lot of quarterbacks," he said. "It's my turn to really take charge. When you get playmakers like that, just get them the ball and be accurate with it. Give them a chance to catch and run."
After working for the last month with the new-look receiving corps, Sanchez has imparted his knowledge of his targets to the Jets' "new" third QB, Kevin O'Connell.
"I've learned a lot already just by talking to Mark about how he and the receivers do certain things on certain plays," said O'Connell, beginning his second tour of duty with the Jets after spending training camp with the Dolphins. "In a meeting or when we're all watching tape, you just open up your ears and hear what they have to say.
"I have a pretty solid familiarity with the system," he said. "I walked in the other day, and I felt like I never left. There's such a good vibe. Everyone is here for one reason: to win football games."
As the vocal leader in the huddle, the quarterback is the fuel that feeds the offensive machine. On Sunday, Sanchez looks to showcase the revamped Jets "O" and get on track right away.
"That's been a real push for us," said Sanchez. "Whether we receive the ball or get it on the second possession of the game, we need to score. That will be our intention each time we touch the ball, and we'll go from there."