Commentary

Sanchez accepting role as leader of Jets

Despite Rex Ryan's commanding style, it's up to Sanchez to take control for Gang Green

Updated: August 19, 2011, 9:16 AM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- So Mark Sanchez answered the first defeat of 2011, a preseason loss to the Houston Texans, by working out before the crack of dawn. Off the plane, off the bus, off the pages of GQ and straight into the weight room at 5:30 a.m. to prove this is one cover boy not demanding his beauty sleep between photo shoots.

He's a firefighter's son after all, a quarterback raised on the virtues of an honest day's work. As it turns out, the GQ spread in Hugo Boss threads represents Sanchez's first spiral of the year -- proceeds will benefit Tuesday's Children, a nonprofit supporting children of 9/11 victims, to mark the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks.

The quarterback wanted his New York Jets teammates to know he wasn't channeling the spirits of Joe Namath and John Travolta for the mere purpose of advancing some self-promoting cause.

"Then," Sanchez said, "it's not just, 'Hey, let me put on some tight white pants and go take a bunch of pictures.'"

Then it's an athlete acting like a leader instead of a movie star.

But back to the Jets' weight room, 5:30 a.m. Tuesday. Sanchez didn't play much in Houston, so he decided he needed some lifting and running more than he needed some sleep. Santonio Holmes and Greg McElroy were the only Jets to join him in this voluntary session. Rex Ryan? He volunteered to go home to bed.

The big-name quarterback was outworking the bigger-name coach.

"It's another sign that Mark Sanchez has accepted his place in the franchise," said Phil Simms, an established winner and worker who said he'd never punctuated a road trip by hitting the weights at such an ungodly hour.

"The only way to get that presence a quarterback needs is to deliver on the field," said Simms, a CBS analyst, "and Mark has already done that. He has cred in the locker room and a tremendous influence on the team. He knows if he doesn't take advantage of that influence, he's not a true quarterback."

Or a true franchise player. And in this win-or-else season, the Jets need to be Mark Sanchez's franchise more than they are Rex Ryan's franchise.

Through the force of his outsized personality, Ryan has elevated the Jets to two consecutive AFC title games. But no matter how much a coach imposes his will on his team, the NFL remains a quarterback's domain.

The Jets will win a Super Bowl title for the first time since Richard Nixon took office when Sanchez is ready to win them one. Yes, that means maintaining a higher completion percentage, settling for fewer field goals and seizing enough regular-season games in Tom Brady's division to land a playoff game or two at home.

No, that doesn't mean Sanchez needs to declare -- as Eli Manning did -- that he's already a quarterback who belongs in Brady's league. On Thursday, Sanchez didn't present his throttling of the Patriots in last year's postseason tournament as evidence that he's a top-tier talent, too.

"Once we win the Super Bowl," he said, "then maybe I'll have an opinion on that."

Never short on opinions, Ryan actually shot down any attempt to compare his guy to Brady and Peyton Manning, tempering his usual blustery approach by saying, "Not those two," and by twice conceding, "We're a ways from there."

Ryan did call Sanchez "an elite quarterback" and did remind everyone that the kid has won four road playoff games in two years. Left unspoken was the fact that Sanchez hasn't been good enough from September through December to make it easier on himself in January.

Last season, after Sanchez stunk it up against the Patriots and Dolphins ("Mark is beginning to scare me," Namath himself tweeted during the Miami game), Ryan confessed that he considered turning to the Jurassic backup, Mark Brunell. Sanchez later told GQ he wanted to fight his coach right then and there.

"And after that happened," Simms said, "Mark was as good a quarterback as there was in the NFL. That was a huge point in the careers of Mark and Rex.

"They both prospered from it. Rex told me after the Miami game, 'Yeah, my quarterback's not liking me a whole lot now,' and I said later, 'Man, that's a good thing.' I mean, what NFL quarterback hasn't wanted to go into a back room and fight his head coach?"

Simms would know. He played in the same market for a different team and a different extra-large personality, Bill Parcells, who thrived on intramural conflict.

"That was the atmosphere Bill created," Simms said. "He did it differently than Rex. He wanted to antagonize us."

Here and there, the created and creative tension inspired Simms and Parcells to engage in sideline screaming matches. The experience hardened the quarterback and enhanced his leadership skills.

"The best compliment I ever got," Simms said, "came from O.J. Anderson answering a question at a forum. He was asked if he'd ever talked in the huddle, and he said, 'Are you kidding? Talk in Phil's huddle? He'd bite your head off if ever you made a noise.'"

Sanchez's huddle needs to become the same kind of unforgiving place.

It's getting there. The Jets saw their quarterback play through his shoulder injury, and they saw him outgun Peyton and Brady in back-to-back weeks. As one of Ryan's captains, Sanchez said he's been expanding his voice in this camp and doing his damnedest to honor the coach's faith.

Leadership, the quarterback said, "comes pretty natural." He spoke of following his father's example as a boy, of being first in line on field trips and holding doors for others and presenting awards to coaches at Little League banquets.

Sanchez sure doesn't sound like the rookie who lost a game and acted like a silly little child by reading a handwritten rant to the news media.

"If the Jets don't win the Super Bowl in the next five years," Simms said, "I don't think it will be because of Mark."

Here's an educated guess: If the Jets do win the Super Bowl, it will be because of Mark first, Rex second.

Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter."

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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