Commentary

Time for Sanchez to prove he's for real

QB must rise above the criticism -- and show he can become a Big Apple superstar

Updated: December 31, 2011, 8:47 PM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- He was all but drafted off a Hollywood set, this quarterback out of Southern California and Central Casting, so it came as no surprise that Mark Sanchez wanted the big city and bright lights.

Only now Sanchez has been burned by those lights for the first time. Beaten by Eli Manning's team, threatened by Peyton Manning's potential availability, Sanchez is very much a passer on the run, a struggling hopeful trying desperately to keep what he calls a dream job.

[+] EnlargeMark Sanchez
Danny Wild/US PresswireMark Sanchez is 4-2 in the playoffs with a passer rating 21 points higher than in the regular season.

But here's the good news: The New York Jets get to find out if Sanchez is a real keeper, or just another quarterback passing through. Sanchez has Sunday, and at least the early part of 2012, to prove that he's not merely a franchise quarterback because the franchise doesn't have another quarterback, or credible one, on the payroll.

Sanchez deserves to be the opening day starter next year because he's won four playoff games in two seasons and can still finish Year 3 with a third consecutive winning record. But halfway through 2012, if Sanchez remains the wildly inconsistent and underwhelming player he's been for much of 2011, the Jets will turn to the legitimate backup Mike Tannenbaum must land in the offseason, whether that's Vince Young or someone else.

This won't be Brian Schottenheimer's problem next fall, because the Jets have a better chance of honoring Rex Ryan's Super Bowl guarantee on Feb. 5 than their offensive coordinator does of making the cut one more time. If you have a clue, and you've been around the block once or twice, you know that Ryan's wandering non-answer to the annual state-of-Schotty question in Wednesday's news conference had the distinct sound of a eulogy, NFL style.

And when they no longer have the offensive coordinator to kick around, the Jets and their fan base can close in on Ryan and Sanchez, with the quarterback heavily favored to lose that game of Survivor.

So how tough is this kid? Can he take a punch? Is he resilient enough to navigate the kind of turbulence Eli Manning endured before he hit pay dirt in the Arizona desert?

"You've got to work through these times," Sanchez said at his locker. "I'm ready for these challenges."

We'll see about that. Eli was about to be run out of town before he won his title. One of Sanchez's biggest fans, Phil Simms, had his job taken by Bill Parcells and handed to Scott Brunner, and later recovered to nearly pitch a Don Larsen game in the Super Bowl.

Under siege this year, Sanchez hasn't carried himself like he once did. Too often he's had a hangdog-ish look about him, as if he'd just lost his brand-new bike. So he was asked Wednesday if anything has happened to him recently that made him question his desire to play in New York.

"No, no, no, no, no," he said. "Win, lose, or draw, I'm the luckiest guy in the world. I promise."

Maybe he meant it. After all, Sanchez has lived a young bachelor's fantasy, quarterbacking Joe Namath's team while apparently having Joe Willie's effect on the opposite sex.

Sanchez has embraced everything New York has to offer, including magazine shoots and a regular home in the gossip pages. And since Sanchez spent some time last week praising Derek Jeter, it's worth nothing that George Steinbrenner had concerns about the Captain's nightlife in the early years of Jeter's prince-of-the-city reign.

By winning it all as a rookie, and by starting a dynastic run in his own Year 3, Jeter had the ultimate line of defense, a fallback position Sanchez can't claim. If the quarterback needs to spend a little less time enjoying a glamour boy's spoils, and a little more time in the video room, weight room, whatever, then that's what he needs to do.

If the films never lie, sometimes the numbers do. In 2011, the numbers say Sanchez is an improved quarterback. He's completed a higher percentage of his passes (56.2 percent) than he did in his first two seasons, and he's thrown for 24 touchdowns (up from 17 last year) and run for six more (equaling his combined sum from 2009 and 2010).

But even semi-educated football eyes can see Sanchez has leveled off, at best, taking 37 sacks and devolving into a human dump-off machine, unable or unwilling to make any throws down the field.

In the embarrassing loss to the Giants that followed the embarrassing loss to the Eagles, Sanchez either felt pressure that wasn't there, or didn't feel pressure that was there. It was an ugly 59-pass experience that suggested the Jets quarterback isn't going to make it long-term.

On the criticism since, Sanchez said, "It's understood any time things don't go your way, and things aren't as successful as people expect.

"Obviously there are high expectations. We went to the AFC championship two years in a row, so there's only one more step to make, really. Win that game and then go win the Super Bowl."

Sanchez's Jets won't be going to the Super Bowl in Indianapolis, and the man who bought nonrefundable tickets to the big game knows it. Ryan looked and sounded deflated Wednesday, out of bluster and out of hope.

"Look," he said of what went down against the Giants, "that's not the only game we've ever lost." It only felt that way because of what Ryan had said about the Giants, ranked by Rex as the second-best team in a two-team market until, of course, that unscientific poll was flipped upside down.

Ryan couldn't even bring himself to find another Channing Crowder on the Miami Dolphins' roster. He sounded no more passionate about beating Miami than he did about defending Schottenheimer.

Meanwhile, Ryan's alleged franchise player, Sanchez, was doing what he could to wear a happy face for the franchise, saying, "I know a lot of Jets fans this past offseason were like, 'Man you took us to two AFC Championship [Games]. This is the best two seasons we've had in so long.'

"And they thanked me, and been excited. And right now when you're not winning, it's like, 'Man, come on, you've got to play better than that.' That's OK. These fans want results and that's fine."

Sanchez swore he is "light-years ahead" of where he was earlier in his career, but the words mean nothing now. Peyton Manning could be free in the offseason, and who knows what happens then?

For now, only this much is clear: Mark Sanchez has been burned by the same bright lights he wanted.

This is either his chance to recover, or his time to melt.

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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