The hope at the Atlantic Health Jets Training Center last April was that the Jets had found their franchise quarterback when they shipped a trio of veterans and a pair of draft picks to the Cleveland Browns to draft USC product Mark Sanchez with the No. 5 overall selection. It was a bold move, but the trade looks more ingenious with each passing day as Sanchez's play in December and January was not only solid but at times spectacular.
"These last six weeks, that's when I felt like I was just starting to scratch the surface and we started to scratch the surface as a team, as an offense," said the 23-year-old Sanchez, a day after the Colts sent the Jets to the their postseason exit. "I was playing the right way, making the right decisions for this team and this franchise and that was encouraging. We definitely have something to build on here. We're excited."
After leading the Jets to road victories in Cincinnati and San Diego, Sanchez delivered his finest professional performance in the AFC Championship Game. Completing 17 of 30 for 257 yards with two touchdowns and one late interception, Sanchez displayed the calm of a 10-year vet Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
"He's going to be a tremendous quarterback," said RT Damien Woody. "That AFC Championship game yesterday, he played his butt off. He really did, there is no question about it. This whole thing is not too big for him. He just got better and better and better. Maybe he didn't have gaudy stats, but he was definitely playing better football. I think yesterday it just jumped out at you. With the whole off-season to really work with the guys, the sky's the limit for the guy."
Wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery, whose 194 receiving yards in the playoffs leads the NFL, caught five of Sanchez's passes Sunday for 102 yards. Sanchez led the Green & White to 17 first-half points, but the team ultimately fell due to a Peyton Manning barrage.
"We have a lot to build on. The thing that's most encouraging is Sanchez played a very good game yesterday. It was a big-time game, to play in the AFC Championship as a rookie quarterback, and he rose to the challenge," J-Co said. "He rose to the occasion and he made a lot of plays for us yesterday, but that guy on the other side has been doing it for a while now at a high level, and he got into a zone that we've seen on TV but we saw it in person."
In his first three postseason games, Sanchez completed 60 percent of his passes for 539 yards with four touchdowns, two interceptions and a 92.7 rating. He took his game to another level when you consider he was just a 53.8 percent passer in the regular season and his 20 interceptions outnumbered his 12 touchdown passes.
Woody, who broke into the NFL with the Patriots and was a teammate of Tom Brady's from 2000-03, said Sanchez shares some character traits with the future Hall of Famer.
"The two things that I really see at this stage are it isn't too big and they're both competitive. Mark is a very competitive guy. The ambience, the stage just doesn't get too big for him. He doesn't get caught up in the hoopla, he doesn't get caught up in the moment. He's just calm," Woody said. "I think you saw that as the season progressed, and as the games got bigger, he got better. Part of that is coaching, but part of that is his maturation as a player."
Using a conservative offensive style, the Jets played to their strengths and led the league in rushing during the regular season. They finished next-to-last in passing offense, but that number surely will improve in 2010 with a veteran Sanchez passing to the likes of Cotchery, Braylon Edwards, Dustin Keller and Leon Washington, who will be back in the fold as well.
"With a full off-season to work with some of our young skill position talent and being in this system another year, usually when you go from your first year to your second year, that's when you make your biggest jump as far as development," Woody said. "We'll still be a run-first team, no question about it, but I think we'll have more balance in our offense."
"Now we have to step it up in the passing game," Cotchery added, "and make sure we have that chemistry necessary if teams want to load the box and stop the run that we can make them pay for that. We have to be one of those offenses that can put points on the board when we need to put points on the board and I think that's going to be one of our main focuses."
Football is the ultimate team game, but Sanchez and friends own playoff wins over the Carson Palmer-led Bengals and the Philip Rivers-led Chargers. Palmer, a close friend of the Sanchez family, texted Mark Sunday and urged him to keep battling, keep his head up high and told him he did a heck of a job against Manning and the Colts. Sanchez will be depended on more in the future and he's eager for that responsibility and his next postseason shot.
"As a rookie quarterback, that's a point where you want to get to, where the game is in your hands and you want the ball. I have to make the throw and I have the attitude, so we just have to keep working and get there," he said. "It was an honor to play against those guys and hopefully we can again soon."