Thursday, January 20, 2011 Updated: January 21, 9:07 AM ET
Namath & Co. all agree: Mark's got it
By Rich Cimini ESPNNewYork.com
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- He turned 24 only two months ago, but Mark Sanchez already has won twice as many postseason games as any quarterback in New York Jets history -- four.
"He's pretty damn lucky," former Jets quarterback Vinny Testaverde said in an envious kind of way, noting that Sanchez has compiled as many playoff starts in two seasons as he had in 21.
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If the Jets beat the Pittsburgh Steelers for the AFC championship, Sanchez will share rarefied air with Joe Namath as the only two quarterbacks in team history to reach the Super Bowl. The Jets' quarterback fraternity, from Namath to Ken O'Brien to Chad Pennington, has watched closely, forming different opinions of Sanchez.
Namath loves his attitude. Pennington likes his unselfishness. Testaverde likes his cool demeanor. Pat Ryan likes his resilience. O'Brien likes his grounded personality.
ESPNNewYork.com interviewed the five former Jets quarterbacks this week. Namath, Ryan, Testaverde and Pennington combined for six of the franchise's 12 postseason wins -- Richard Todd also has two -- so they know what it's like to perform in the crucible of sudden death.
Though none of them gushed about Sanchez's physical talent -- most of the compliments involved his intangibles -- they believe the second-year quarterback has enough moxie to take the Jets all the way for the first time in 42 years.
"Mark is real," Namath said. "He convinced the staff and his teammates from day one that he's a football player and that his No. 1 goal is to win a championship. I've been elated with Mark's progression. ... My man has already played in a bunch of big games -- and won them. Come on, the guy is a good quarterback."
Ken O'Brien says Mark Sanchez benefits from having the unconditional support of his coach, Rex Ryan.
Namath said he's impressed with Sanchez's ability to handle the scrutiny and potential distractions of New York at such a young age. The trappings of celebrity and the pressures of the job can devour the weak. Namath admitted he struggled early in his career, recalling he was "very angry" the first time he was booed by New York fans. Sanchez has endured slumps and a smattering of boos, but he doesn't seem affected by them.
"It can be a strain on a young man," Namath said. "It can make you a bit paranoid, even dealing with the media. You have to worry about what you can and can't say. You think, 'Holy cow, could what I just said be misunderstood?'"
Pennington, who won playoff games in the 2002 and 2004 seasons, commended Sanchez for avoiding the sophomore slump.
"He learned how to win football games," Pennington said. "That's the biggest difference I see. There's a difference between winning football games and putting up stats. This isn't fantasy football, it's about winning. Mark, in a short period of time, has come to understand how to play the game to help his team win games. At the end of the day, that's how we're judged. That's pretty impressive for a young guy to grasp that concept. Plenty of guys are just concerned with the stat sheet."
Sanchez is a career 54 percent passer with a quarterback rating of 70.2, numbers that usually result in a demotion or a pink slip, but he wins. His record is 19-12, plus four wins in the postseason -- all on the road. No quarterback in league history has won five road playoff games.
Ryan, who won a playoff game in 1986, said he was impressed by Sanchez's ability to shake off slow starts in the past two games.
"I was surprised," Ryan said. "The way he started against the Patriots, I thought, 'Oh, my, this could be a long day.' But he showed a lot of stuff. That was a huge step for him.
"He's not hurting his team, which is one of the best things you can say about a quarterback, especially in the playoffs," he continued. "He's getting better. I wouldn't go out and say he's one of the best in the league right now, but he's a good starter on a good team."
All five quarterbacks agreed that Sanchez benefits from a strong running game and a terrific defense, reducing his burden. O'Brien took that one step further, saying coach Rex Ryan's unwavering support has been instrumental in Sanchez's development.
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"It helps to have a coach like Rex," said O'Brien, who never started a playoff victory despite being the second-leading passer in team history. "He's firmly in Mark's corner and he makes no bones about it. That lets the quarterback go out and play, and not have to look over your shoulder. If something bad happens, you just learn from it and move on. That's a great thing for a quarterback, especially a young quarterback."
O'Brien, who did some high school coaching in Southern California, saw Sanchez play at Mission Viejo High School. O'Brien kept tabs on the best players in the area, and his curiosity led him to Sanchez.
"He's always been a physically talented kid," O'Brien said. "He's a real solid kid, you could tell he was raised in a great family. He was always smiling, being who he is. That's contagious. You can tell he has great chemistry with the other guys on the team."
The one criticism among the former quarterbacks is Sanchez's inconsistent accuracy, especially early in games. That really showed up in the wild-card game at Indianapolis, where he misfired on 19 of his first 28 passes, including a red zone interception.
Namath speculated that Sanchez's shaky starts could be attributed to adrenaline. Recalling his first pass in Super Bowl III, Namath said he sailed a ball over the head of George Sauer because he was too amped.
Now the question is, can Sanchez beat the Steelers for the second time in six weeks?
"I definitely don't think this is too big for him," said Testaverde, who led the Jets to the 1998 AFC Championship Game.
O'Brien said Sanchez can win it all.
"Sure, definitely," he said. "There's not a doubt in my mind. But it's more than the quarterback. They've got the coaching staff and the belief, the chemistry and the camaraderie. That trumps everything else."