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The New York Jets acquired two surefire Hall of Famers, a former Super Bowl MVP and a former All-Pro. They completed a new $1.6 billion stadium, became national celebrities on "Hard Knocks" and did enough trash-talking (and cursing) to make an inmate blush.
Yes, the attention-starved Jets succeeded in making themselves relevant, but their Super Bowl-or-bust mission won't be determined by a popularity contest. It will be decided by the development of a 23-year-old quarterback who needs to play a lot better than last season if the Jets are to have any chance of reaching their first Super Bowl in 42 years.
|Mark Sanchez threw 12 touchdown passes as a rookie. The Jets need more this season.|
Mark Sanchez, it's on you.
The Jets gave him a couple of new toys (LaDainian Tomlinson and Santonio Holmes), and they imported a mentor (Mark Brunell) to help him cope with the highs and lows of the job. They believe he's ready for Phase 2 of the Sanchez plan, which means more freedom. Instead of running 59 percent of the time, as they did last season, the goal is to be a 50-50 offense.
Is Sanchez ready for that? Based on the preseason, the answer is no. If the Jets are smart, they will continue to bring him along slowly, especially without Holmes (four-game suspension). The Jets finally have an identity on offense -- Ground and Pound -- and it would be a mistake to abandon that prematurely.
"For where the quarterback is in his career, he still needs a strong running game," said an NFL personnel executive, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "I don't think you want to put the game on his arm. I don't think that will put the team over the top. They still need the running game."
Sanchez, who threw 20 interceptions in 15 starts, wants to cut that total in half. But he can't do that by throwing more often than last season. This is a slow process, and the Jets can't let themselves get sucked into the hype surrounding the improved skill-position talent on offense.
"I've always believed that if a quarterback can play as well in Year 2 as he did in his rookie year, you've really made progress," said former coach Marty Schottenheimer, whose son, Brian, is the Jets' offensive coordinator. "It might sound strange, but there's more attention in Year 2, higher expectations, and it's harder to focus."
If the elder Schottenheimer is correct, there will be a lot of disappointed Jets fans. Another 12-20 touchdown-interception ratio isn't going to make anybody say, "You know what? The kid got better."
Sanchez has to be careful not to fall victim to his own success. He won two road playoff games this past January, a tremendous accomplishment for a rookie, but he hasn't arrived -- yet. He still has to earn the trust of his coaches and teammates. He has to prove he can be the driver, not a passenger.
In his 11 wins last season, Sanchez exceeded the 200-yard mark only once, in his first game. All great quarterbacks are measured by their ability to get their team in the end zone when the game is on the line, and he's still looking for his first fourth-quarter comeback win.
Sanchez wants to be the leader of the offense. How do we know? He said so. You have to admire his spunk, but the best way for him to lead is to perform. Do your job and galvanize an offense that has intriguing talent. Do that, and you will be deemed a leader.
Clearly, the coaching staff wants him to ascend to that status. It let Sanchez wear Brian Schottenheimer's headset and call some plays in the final preseason game, a clever way of casting him in the role of an authority figure. What? You thought it was so he could learn some X's and O's?
This season is all about Sanchez. Tomlinson and Holmes could have Pro Bowl years, but the Jets won't achieve their ultimate goal unless the quarterback develops to the point that he can win a few games on his own. A 2,000-yard rushing attack and the No. 1 defense gets you only so far, as the Jets proved last season.
"As I grow up, the passing offense grows up and expands," Sanchez said, accurately.
The point is, he doesn't have to grow up overnight.
Rich Cimini covers the Jets for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.More from ESPNNewYork.com »