- Ian O'Connor, ESPN Senior Writer
- 0 Shares
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- With his It Boy looks and charisma and a healthy appetite for the stage, Mark Sanchez matches up with the image of a bright-lights, big-city quarterback better than any New Yorker since Broadway Joe.
No Jet or Giant had brought any real glamour to the glamour position since Joe Namath wore mink coats and pantyhose and let a wannabe starlet named Farrah Fawcett spread shaving cream all over his famous face.
Brett Favre? He was here for 15 minutes, and hated every millisecond of it. Eli Manning? He has all the gravitas of a Super Bowl MVP, but the aw-shucks act and hangdog-ish body language strongly suggest that a post-playing career in motion pictures is not in his cards.
Meanwhile, Mark Sanchez is a walking billboard for Hollywood. He quarterbacked the pro team in Los Angeles while earning college credits for it, ignored his coach at USC, Pete Carroll, who swore the kid wasn't ready for the NFL, and all but begged for the Jets to jump a dozen spots in the 2009 draft and keep him a big-market baller all the way.
Sanchez didn't even have to sit through an apprenticeship served by the likes of Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. He started from day one, won four road playoff games in his first two years, and took full advantage of the fame and fortune and photo shoots afforded a quarterback who appeared destined to spend his career in the AFC title game.
And yet entering Monday night's must-win meeting with the Miami Dolphins, Sanchez hadn't answered the one question that most unnerves his team's fan base:
Will he ever develop into an elite quarterback who leads his team to Super Bowl glory, or is he doomed to spend his prime as yet another Jet mediocrity who needs to be elevated by his teammates?
This ghastly 24-6 victory over 0-5 Miami didn't provide any evidence in either direction, not when the Dolphins were determined to win a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for Dumbest Game Plan in the History of Mankind -- have a lousy quarterback, Matt Moore, keep throwing footballs in the direction of Darrelle Revis -- and not when Revis rescued his team from a potential 10-0 first-quarter deficit (and a potential four-game losing streak) when he returned a Moore pass 100 yards.
Just as Revis did against Dallas on opening night, he made a play that might go down as a season shaper. "That was so cool," Sanchez said.
But Revis was already on record saying the quarterback will have far more to do with the franchise's hopes of winning its first title in 43 years than any defensive player could.
That quarterback had already been publicly ripped this year by fellow captain Santonio Holmes, who's been pancaking teammates left and right. Holmes' penalty? He was asked to handle the pregame coin toss with guard Brandon Moore, among the Jets angered by the receiver's not-so-glowing reviews of the offensive line.
Neither Holmes nor Moore looked thrilled that they were elected to deceive. Ryan tried in vain to convince everyone that his Jets have healed their fractured family unit, and he dismissed questions about the internal strife.
"We're chasing a much bigger thing than that," the coach said.
Sanchez is the Jet most responsible for how that chase ends.
On Monday night, he recovered from another dreadful start to throw for 201 yards and account for two touchdowns, one by ground and one by air. But his four straight three-and-outs to open the game left the fans booing and summoned memories of last year's loss to Miami, the one that inspired Ryan to consider benching his quarterback in favor of the mummified remains of Mark Brunell.
Sanchez survived; he usually does. This time around, during the darkest moments of the Jets' first victory in four weeks, Sanchez approached his teammates on the sideline and told them, "Keep fighting. Keep fighting. We're going to blow this thing open, I promise."
To punctuate an 11-play, 81-yard drive near the end of the first half, Sanchez fielded a third-down call from the sideline, looked Miami's defense up and down, and decided he was about to change the game. "It was going to be a touchdown for sure," he later said.
Sanchez took the snap, acted as if he was about to drop back, then darted through the middle of the Miami defense, switching the ball from his left hand to his right before diving across the goal line for a 5-yard score.
"I'm not Michael Vick," Sanchez said. "I'm not going to rush for 30 yards a pop. But when you can rush for 7 yards, 8 yards, 9 yards, that's huge. You can break down a defense."
Sanchez broke Miami for keeps early in the fourth quarter, when he stayed on the right fringe of the pocket just long enough to look off the double-covered Dustin Keller and find his critic, Holmes, for a 38-yard score.
"Sorry, man," Sanchez told his blockers. "I took an hour and a half. My bad. I'll get rid of it sooner."
If the quarterback was trying to encourage a wounded and maligned offensive line during the game, he was trying to encourage an ineffective Plaxico Burress after it. Sanchez kept telling reporters about the block Burress threw on Holmes' touchdown, kept describing it as an "unselfish" play in the hope that someone, anyone, would write it.
So the quarterback had his good moments on a mixed night -- at best -- for his offense. "Just a great competitor," Ryan said of Sanchez, "and a guy that doesn't get rattled." If nothing else, the coach was happy to be talking about someone other than recently traded receiver Derrick Mason and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer.
But it always comes back to Sanchez, who was lucky Miami didn't already have Andrew Luck in the fold. If paired against a competent opponent, Sanchez's early three-and-outs might've killed the Jets. Same goes for his inexplicable failure to find a wide-open Keller for a touchdown in the third quarter.
In the end, Sanchez was good enough to beat a winless team, and bad enough at times to make Jets fans think some uncomfortable big-picture thoughts.
No, Sanchez will likely never grow into a Brady or a Rodgers or a Peyton Manning. But will he at least become an Eli Manning, a second-tier star who can win it all with the right team at the right time?
Between now and judgment day, only this much is clear: It isn't always going to be pretty with the pretty boy quarterback.
Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter". Sunday Morning With Ian O'Connor can be heard every Sunday, 9-11 a.m., on ESPN New York 1050.
3hEric D. Williams