Mark Sanchez might be making just his 19th NFL start (including playoffs) Monday night against the Ravens, but the 23-year-old is convinced that he can be a leader for the Jets in his second pro season.
"I think I'm learning every day from a guy like [Mark] Brunell, becoming more assertive as a leader each day," he said this afternoon in front of his locker in the Atlantic Health Jets Training Center. "Just when I see a lull in practice, being able to tell a guy, 'Hey man, I need you now.' Being able to go up to guys individually, and making sure when we start our third-down period that I go tell the guys just to remind them, 'Hey we're going to third down. We have to hustle up and get to the line so we can go through our checks. I'm really going to need your tempo now.' "
Sanchez, who was continually praised for his worth ethic this offseason, has a better understanding of coordinator Brian Schottenheimer's offense, has improved his knowledge of protections and should be quicker when going through his reads.
"You can't call on other guys and call on them to be accountable when you don't know your reads, when you're messing with the snap count and not understanding why the play is being run at a certain time," he said. "When you're throwing interceptions, it's hard to tell guys, 'I need you to hurry up now. I need you to do this.' "
In a quarterback league, the Jets need Sanchez to take the next step. He doesn't have to be Brady, Brees or Manning, but the Green & White will be hard-pressed to improve their 9-7 regular-season mark from a year ago if Sanchez repeats as a 53 percent passer with 20 INTs.
"This year is about taking care of the ball, understanding the situation, and no matter what, getting the most completions you possibly can," said Sanchez, who completed 65 percent of his passes this preseason. "If we have 12 attempts, you want to be 12-for-12. It doesn't mean you have to pass for 300 yards, it can be 80 yards, but they can be key completions that move drives that convert on third down and that can really help us."
While the Jets don't want Sanchez to play recklessly, they don't want him to be robotic on the field, either. He's a passionate player and teammates can feed off his excitement.
"The thing is he just needs to go out and play the position and have fun, lean on the guys around him and build each other up," said head coach Rex Ryan. "That's what we expect from our entire team. "He's no different. Just because he plays the position of quarterback, a lot more is expected from him from a leadership standpoint. He's the guy whose hands are on the football all the time. He's important, there's no question about it. The guys respect him. They respect his work ethic and they respect the competitor he is. I can tell you that — every person in this organization respects that."
Comparing his job description to that of a basketball pointguard, Sanchez said all he has to do is facilitate the jobs of his teammates. The situation is favorable considering the Jets have the NFL's best defense, their ground game should be punishing again and Sanchez won't be asked to be a miracle worker.
"I'm thrilled about the growth I've had. It seems like in just one year, it feels like just so much experience from playing," he said. "All that game experience has really helped in these situations in practice and the situations that come up this year, hopefully I'm better and more prepared."
Last season, the Jets were 6-1 in contests (his injury-shortened Dec. 3 contest vs. Buffalo included) in which Sanchez attempted 22 or fewer passes. New York's AFC representative captured games in Week 1 and Week 3 when Sanchez threw 31 times and 30 times against the Texans and Titans, respectively, but they were 0-4 the rest of the way (including the AFC Championship) when the rookie dialed it up 30 times or more.
When asked if he was prepared to throw the rock 35 times if necessary, Sanchez delivered a response you'd like to hear from a rifleman.
"As a quarterback, you'd love to throw it every play. I mean, that would be your favorite," he said. "But it's important for us not to lose our identity and be able to play — to be an all-weather offense, to be able to ground and pound when we need to, and at the same time, when it calls to open things up and throw the ball down the field, we want to be able to do that as well. And that's going to depend on my growth and I definitely think we can do that this year."