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Wednesday, July 25, 2012
Camp will make or break Sanchez

By Rich Cimini
ESPNNewYork.com

The calendar says July, but it's really January for Mark Sanchez. It'll be January for the next five months.

Sanchez has been at his best in January -- more postseason wins than any quarterback in New York Jets history -- but he's about to experience that kind of pressure on a weekly basis, starting Thursday when the Jets report to training camp.

All because of a certain left-handed backup with an uncanny knack for winning games and attracting fans, even though he can't throw straight.

Technically, it's not a quarterback competition between Sanchez and Tim Tebow, but you can be sure it'll be competitive -- a dramatic change for the incumbent.

Mark Sanchez
Mark Sanchez is 4-2 in the playoffs with a passer rating 21 points higher than in the regular season.

It'll make Sanchez or break him.

ESPNNewYork.com contacted six NFL insiders -- two former general managers, two scouts, a personnel director and a player-turned-analyst -- and they're unanimous in their belief that Sanchez will raise his game and ward off the challenge from Tebow.

The prevailing theme: For the first time in his career, Sanchez faces a legitimate threat to his job, a new dynamic that will sharpen his edge.

"I think he'll respond favorably," one former GM said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "He has issues being consistent and staying poised, but I don't think this is anything but fuel to the fire. It won't inhibit his growth and it won't put him in a shell. If it does, he doesn't have it. But I think he has a lot of moxie."

As a rookie, Sanchez beat out Kellen Clemens in a staged competition. For the next two years, his backup was antique Mark Brunell, who was more of a big brother than a threat. When Sanchez slumped and lost a few practice reps to Brunell, Rex Ryan's version of tough love, he sulked.

With Tebow looming, there can be no sulking in football, not with the world watching.

"In the past, [Sanchez] was given his spot; he didn't have to earn it and he didn't have anyone on his coattails," said the personnel director, who also was granted anonymity. "When a player is put into that position, it creates a certain mindset, a relaxed mindset.

"This is a legitimately competitive environment. Regardless of what it says in his contract, he has to respond -- every day, every moment. I know people in the organization are excited about it, eager to see how he shows up."

The insiders polled predicted Sanchez will study harder and practice better, leading to more consistent performances in the games. Perhaps not coincidentally, he prepared like a madman for training camp, according to people close to the team. Sanchez said he's in the best shape of his life.

The Jets insisted they didn't trade for Tebow to push Sanchez (wink, wink), and Sanchez claimed he didn't need the push. Then again, what competitor would admit he needed a kick in the rear? To a man, the insiders said, Sanchez's best trait is his ability to respond in the clutch, a quality that should serve him well amid Tebow-mania.

"In the regular season, he's really erratic, but when he's in pressure situations -- like the playoffs -- the light goes on," said ESPN analyst Damien Woody, who played with Sanchez for two years. "For a quarterback, there isn't any more pressure than having Tim Tebow as your backup ... I really do expect a big step forward."

Sanchez is 4-2 in the playoffs, with a 94.3 passer rating -- 21 points higher than his regular-season rating.

"The more pressure he's under, the better he plays," said former Washington Redskins GM Vinny Cerrato, an ESPN radio analyst. "I don't think he'll crumble. If he doesn't look good early, I'd be shocked."

But there will be challenges for Sanchez, according to the insiders. Here are three:

 • A new offense. There will be growing pains as the Jets learn offensive coordinator Tony Sparano's system. It's never an easy process, mastering a new playbook, but it could be exacerbated because the players and coaches lost a chunk of classroom time, per the league's new offseason rules. That they face four of the top six scoring defenses in the first five games will make it that much harder.

 • The Wildcat. Sanchez will lose snaps at quarterback because Tebow will run some form of the Wildcat. The personnel director called that a concern, because Sanchez is "a rhythmic quarterback. When he's in rhythm, he's more consistent. If you take him out, how can he get that feel?" This will be a delicate balancing act for Ryan and Sparano.

"The big picture is Sanchez, not Tebow," the former GM said. "The plan for Tebow should complement Sanchez, not replace him. If you start messing with him, you're saying you're done with him."

 • Sparano's style. Unlike his predecessor, Brian Schottenheimer, Sparano is a screamer. Much like his mentor, Bill Parcells, he's not shy about tearing into a player. Sanchez hasn't experienced that kind of coaching since high school, according to a friend. The quarterback-coordinator relationship is vital to the quarterback's success, the former GM said.

"The days of the coach pacifying him are over," Woody said.

Prepare for a training camp like no other. Every practice will be dissected by the media, fueling the competitive non-competition.

"He knows it's coming, he knows there's going to be a lot of pressure from a lot of different angles," tight end Dustin Keller said of Sanchez. "That's when he plays his best football. Hopefully, we get that the entire season.

"This is the year he has a chance to step up and be talked about as one of those premier quarterbacks in the NFL. He has the ability. I'm confident he'll be our guy all year. He's the starter now and he's going to hold on to that because he's going to perform."

A bunch of smart people agree.