- James Walker, ESPN Staff Writer
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In a nationally televised game, Sanchez attempted to hand off the ball to a running back who wasn't there and panicked. Instead of sliding or taking a knee, Sanchez made it worse by deciding to become the running back. He ran directly into the large backside of starting guard Brandon Moore and fumbled the football, which was returned for a touchdown by Patriots safety Steve Gregory.
The play is infamously known as the "butt fumble." But it also serves as a watershed mark in Sanchez's NFL career.
This is the play that will define Sanchez if he's unable to revive his career, which many believe is already over. But he has a guaranteed salary of $8.25 million, so Sanchez is getting one final chance to silence the critics and start for the Jets in 2013.
"As far as the emotional side, my heart and soul is into this, and I was just excited to see a bunch of guys on the team again and get ready to get going," Sanchez said on a conference call this week to kick off New York’s offseason program. "That’s really where my head is at. I’m fired up about this year, and I hope it’s a good one."
Few quarterbacks have received more opportunities the past few years than Sanchez. His NFL career has been a roller-coaster ride.
Sanchez struggled as a rookie in 2009 and threw more interceptions (20) than touchdowns (12). But the Jets stuck with Sanchez, and he got better during the playoffs, leading the Jets to his first AFC title game. Sanchez maintained that momentum in 2010 and led New York to another AFC title game. But Sanchez hit rock bottom in 2012 when he recorded the league's lowest Total Quarterback Rating (23.4) and was eventually benched for third-string backup Greg McElroy.
As a result, this is the first summer since Sanchez’s rookie year when he will not be handed the starting job. Sanchez must earn it by beating out veteran free agent David Garrard.
Sanchez will be playing for his third offensive coordinator in three years. He’s struggled under former offensive coordinators Brian Schottenheimer and Tony Sparano. Now, it’s the job of new Jets offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg to get Sanchez’s career headed in the right direction.
“I’m not sure that [Sanchez] needs to be ‘fixed,’” Mornhinweg recently said to reporters. “Mark has a lot of strengths, and he’s played at a high level. It’s our job to get him to play at a high level on a consistent basis. We would certainly like competition at all spots and certainly [the quarterback] spot, the competition just makes everybody better.”
One of Sanchez’s biggest strengths is his boundless optimism. Even when much has gone wrong around him, Sanchez has always accepted blame and seen the best in every situation.
Sanchez, who is the favorite, is approaching this summer’s quarterback battle with Garrard the same way.
“I know Mr. [John] Idzik and Rex [Ryan] are big on competition, and that was really the theme heading into this year. I completely understand that,” Sanchez said. “I think it will bring out the best in everybody on the team, and everybody has to compete for their spot, so I totally respect that. I’m just concerned with preparing to play well for this team and doing everything that I possibly can, everything in my control to be the best quarterback on the roster and go play well.”
New York went 6-10 in 2012 and cut many veterans to get under the salary cap. The Jets made a few bargain-basement signings in free agency and aim to get younger in the draft with first-year general manager John Idzik calling the shots. But this is a rebuilding team that looks at least a year or two away from contending for the playoffs again.
But you can't tell that to Sanchez. This fifth season with the Jets is the most important of his career. Sanchez will prove, once and for all, whether he's a capable NFL starter or a career backup who never could match the hype of being a top-five pick.
This year Sanchez is not looking back on all his mistakes, such as the "butt fumble." He is only looking forward.
“Once you watch all that film, there’s nothing else to do except try and improve and trying to understand how you got in that position and what led to that, how to avoid some of those pitfalls if possible,” Sanchez said. “Go back and really get after the fundamentals like you do every offseason. ... It’s a whole new year and I’m excited to see the kind of team that we have when it’s all said and done and we line up on opening day.”