The New York Jets have an ever-growing list of sinners and sufferers. When they take the field Sunday night in Miami, they won't have:
Braylon Edwards, who will begin the game in "timeout" for his drunk-driving arrest; Santonio Holmes, who has two games left on his drug suspension; Darrelle Revis, who pulled hamstring and won't make the trip; Calvin Pace, recovering from a broken foot; and Kris Jenkins, awaiting knee surgery.
For the record, the group has compiled seven Pro Bowl appearances and one Super Bowl MVP. That is a lot of talent on the sideline. In Revis, Pace and Jenkins, you're talking about their best cover guy, best pass rusher and best run stuffer, respectively.
From a distance, the Jets appear ready for implosion in a critical AFC East contest. A national TV audience will love it, of course, because the Jets have become the team in the black hats. As Damien Woody said, "Everybody wants us to fail. We're the villains. I'm sure people are hoping we get our asses kicked. People just hate our team. That's OK."
At a time like this, with their frat-pack image fueling national criticism, the Jets need Mark Sanchez more than ever. He's the fresh-faced, squeaky-clean quarterback coming off the best passing performance of his career. When he plays like he did against the New England Patriots -- sharp and poised -- the Jets have hope. And hope at the quarterback position covers many blemishes.
"That was a different guy out there than it was last year," Rex Ryan said.
Last year? Try the previous week. Sanchez struggled in the season opener, but his swift and confident rebound scored major points in his own locker room. His teammates have said they always felt he had the potential to do special things, but there was a sense of, "When?"
Sanchez carried the offense last week, throwing three touchdown passes in a near-flawless performance. Beyond the numbers, he demonstrated maturity, galvanizing his teammates during tense moments. That carried over to the Miami preparation, according to players who said Sanchez has become more vocal than ever.
"I really think it was the best game I've seen him play," offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said.
Sanchez's job is about to get tougher. He goes on the road for the first time in 2010, facing an improved defense that has adopted an attacking mentality under new coordinator Mike Nolan. Miami's old 3-4, read-and-react scheme has been replaced by a Jets-like system, predicated on pressure and confusion.
There will be emotion. Lots of emotion. It's the Dolphins' home opener (look for J. Lo on the sideline), and it marks the return of Jason Taylor, who spent 12 seasons in Miami. It figures to be an ear-splitting night for Ryan, who incited Miami fans last January with his infamous middle finger.
"I'm coming out with a helmet," he cracked.
Ryan likes to joke, but he's dead serious about this game. He lost twice last season to the Dolphins, and that's "still a burr in my saddle." More importantly, this is a huge swing game in the standings for the Jets (1-1) and Dolphins (2-0).
If the Jets win, they can say they're in first place, which would be some accomplishment amid the adversity of the Baltimore debacle, the Ines Sainz controversy, the injuries and the Edwards arrest. Ryan uses "organized chaos" to describe his defensive philosophy, but the same could apply to the recent events surrounding this franchise.
Amid the turmoil, the quarterback is growing up. Has anyone noticed that Sanchez has yet to throw an interception? That's 51 pass attempts, 17 shy of his personal best. Has anyone noticed that he has two interceptions over his last seven games, counting the '09 playoffs?
"I think he's going to be an outstanding quarterback," said Ryan, also a fan of the Dolphins' Chad Henne. "He may be there sooner than we think."
Schottenheimer did two things to help Sanchez last week. He scaled back the game plan after admittedly overloading it in Week 1. He also was less predictable on first down, calling 14 running plays and 14 passes in the first 56 minutes, a dramatic swing from the run-heavy plan against the Ravens. Defenses are often vanilla on first down, easier for a young quarterback to decipher.
Ironically, the most telling moment for Sanchez was a play that broke down (a 9-yard flip pass to LaDainian Tomlinson). It was a Favre-esque, under-pressure improvisation. Sanchez said that single play demonstrates his improved decision making. He believes that last year, in the same situation, he would've forced a pass into the middle of the field, likely resulting in an interception.
Oh, it was tempting. The Patriots dropped eight into coverage, with two deep safeties. They left a seam for Dustin Keller, but instead of taking the bait, Sanchez flipped. And his coaches didn't.
"I could definitely flash back to last year, as much as I try to forget it, and saw him trying to make that throw because he has so much confidence," Schottenheimer said. "Last year, he probably would've had no idea where the back was."
Sanchez is maturing, even if it seems like some around him aren't.