Rex Marks the spot: QB is key for Jets

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Do you think Rex Ryan is trying to send a message to Mark Sanchez or what? Since last week, the New York Jets' coach has:

Named Sanchez a team captain.

Declared, in so many words, that the Super Bowl-or-bust quest hinges on improvement from his quarterback.

Revealed that he's planning to open up the offense, letting Sanchez throw more than in the past.

What next, a tattoo that says, "In Mark We Trust"?

You've heard of Mach III? Well, this season for the Jets is Mark III.

The once-overwhelmed rookie who needed a color-coded wrist band to help him make in-game decisions is entering his third season, and Ryan -- really, everybody around the team -- has made it quite clear that it's Sanchez's time and Sanchez's team.

After two years of protecting him, on and off the field, the Jets believe Sanchez is ready to handle that pressure. To a man, they say he has become the team leader. He's come a long way. As a rookie, the only thing he led was the AFC in interceptions.

"He's acting like a junior in high school instead of a freshman," quarterbacks coach Matt Cavanaugh said Tuesday. "Freshmen are a little bit in awe and sometimes there's a false bravado. The next year, you're more comfortable and less intimidated. By junior year, you feel real good. You know everybody, everybody says 'Hi' in the hallway and you know the names of all the teachers."

Sanchez is exerting his leadership more than ever, according to coaches and teammates. They say he's more vocal in meetings. They say he's not shy about calling out a teammate on the field if he makes a mistake. They say he's teaching the offense to new teammates.

"He's serious, man," wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery said. "He's ready to take the next step. He's leading everybody right now."

Quarterback leadership is critical nowadays, especially in the post-lockout NFL. There was no offseason, every team is on an accelerated program and free agents still are coming and going. There needs to be stability amid the tumult; that will separate the contenders from the wannabes.

"I've got to step up as a team captain," said Sanchez, admitting he was intimated at times in the past by some of the big names around him. "It's time to step up and demand the best from these guys."

There are a lot of mouths to feed on offense, what with Santonio Holmes, Plaxico Burress and Dustin Keller. Sanchez admitted he was guilty last year of trying too hard to keep everybody happy. Now he expects to run the show on his terms, and that's a positive for the Jets. If the quarterback isn't the true leader, it's hard for the offense to stay functional.

It'll be interesting to see if Ryan follows through on his plans to throw more than in the past. In Sanchez's rookie season, the run-pass ratio was an astonishing 62/38. (In that kind of offense, the quarterback is basically a lawn jockey.) In 2010, it was a balanced 49/51, as Ryan loosened the reins.

The Jets want to keep their Ground & Pound personality, according to Ryan, but he added: "I would say, when all is said and done, we'll pass the ball more than we have the last two years."

ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer, a former NFL quarterback, applauded the shift in philosophy.

"The Jets have to do that to win a Super Bowl," he said. "You can't use Ground & Pound and expect to win a Super Bowl because of the rules in place. It's a passing league."

To become that kind of team, the Jets have to make adjustments in practice. Take it from Dilfer. He played for run-oriented teams and pass-oriented teams, and he said the difference in preparation was startling.

On a running team like the Baltimore Ravens, Dilfer said he typically got only one chance to rep a particular passing play in practice. Playing for a passing-game guru like Mike Holmgren in Seattle, he said they practiced each pass play about five or six times a week. Dilfer suspects that quarterbacks like Drew Brees and Tom Brady get twice as many passing reps in practice than Sanchez.

That, Dilfer believes, is one of the reasons why Sanchez has struggled with his accuracy, especially early in games. He completed only 55 percent last season, missing a lot of easy throws in the first quarter.

The goal, according to Cavanaugh, is to bring that number up to 65 percent, Sanchez's postseason mark. For whatever reason, he plays better when it matters most. He's 4-2 in the postseason, all on the road.

"He likes the big lights and the big games," Cavanaugh said. "There's something about those games that excite him. What we want him to understand is, if you do those things in the regular season, we'll have home-field advantage in the playoffs."

Sanchez recognizes that he must improve, and he doesn't shy away from the expectations. He gets it: As he goes, team goes. He will wear a "C" on his uniform, but he needs to be more than Captain Crunch Time. It has to be Captain All The Time.

That's how Ryan feels, and he let the world know it.