- Rich Cimini, ESPN Staff Writer
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CORTLAND, N.Y. -- When Mark Sanchez sat down to evaluate his performance in Saturday night's intrasquad scrimmage, he started by dividing his notebook paper into three columns:
Footwork. Decision. Throw.
With quarterbacks coach Matt Cavanaugh leading the session, Sanchez was graded -- plus or minus -- in each category on every pass play, their usual postgame routine. He was grilled by Cavanaugh, who hit him with rapid-fire questions as they broke down each play into sequences.
Are you ready to throw the ball here? Are your eyes where they need to be? Is this a read that requires a hitch and reset or two hitches? If you step up in the pocket, how much does that affect your time clock?
Sanchez passed the test easily, earning unsolicited praise Monday from Rex Ryan.
"The thing that I'm impressed with about Mark is his presence in the pocket," he said. "I think it's so much better. ... The way he moves in the pocket, this is the best that I've seen him."
An early-August scrimmage won't make or break his season, but it was a positive step for Sanchez, whose mechanics were a mess by the end of last year. He worked hard during the offseason on his fundamentals -- footwork, in particular -- and he believes it will make him a better quarterback.
"We've had a good feeling in this building for a while," he said, reflecting on the offseason.
The process started immediately after the season, when Sanchez met with Cavanaugh. It was a difficult time for Cavanaugh, whose future was up in the air. He didn't know if he'd be retained after Ryan decided to revamp the offensive staff, but he wanted to leave his quarterback with a message.
"He said, 'I might be here, I might not be here, just don't forget you're judged on footwork, decision and throw,'" Sanchez said.
When Sanchez returned for the start of the offseason program, he and Cavanaugh -- retained by new coordinator Tony Sparano -- broke down every dropback from the past two seasons, analyzing his footwork. There was some good, some bad. Obviously, it was bad at the end of last season, when he threw seven interceptions over the final three games.
Footwork is vital for quarterback play. Everything on offense is timed -- the quarterback's dropback and the receivers' routes -- and if the quarterback takes a seven-step drop on a pass play that calls for only five steps, the entire play is out of whack.
So they studied it. And drilled it, literally taking it step by step.
"It's so technical," Sanchez said. "Once you get those reads and concepts down, it should look like a teaching tape to Cav. It's an intense deal. It takes a lot of work on his part, so you know he's not getting a lot of sleep."
Here's an example of a practice drill for one particular play:
Sanchez takes a seven-step drop. He sets his feet. He looks to his first read, the tight end. A teammate, playing the tight end, yells "No!" Meaning he's covered.
Sanchez resets his feet, looks to the second read, the flanker. The flanker yells, "No!"
Sanchez resets again, looks for his No. 3 read, a running back -- and throws the checkdown pass.
Bang. Bang. Bang.
Over and over and over.
In the mid-1980s, Cavanaugh was a backup quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, where he learned a lot of his football from the legendary Bill Walsh. The 49ers' offense was based on precision and rhythm, and Joe Montana orchestrated it to perfection.
"His feet are taking him to his throws," Sanchez said of Montana. "He didn't have the strongest arm in the world with Montana, but his feet were so fluid and he had such a good base under him that everything flowed."
Proper footwork is easy when the pass rush isn't "live" -- i.e. the scrimmage. The trick is maintaining the fundamentals when you're getting hammered, play after play, which is what happened to Sanchez at the end of last season. It was chuck and duck.
It's only natural to get antsy in the face of an intense rush, but Sanchez said, "You have to be supernatural." He used a military analogy, saying you can't deviate from the plan no matter how the circumstances change.
"You have to be robotic," he said.
Cavanaugh is a tough grader. He believes every pass play should be evaluated in three stages -- the footwork, the decision and the actual throw. One "minus" grade can ruin a play.
To improve, the key is repetition, which is why the quarterbacks begin every practice with bag drills, an agility test that simulates movement in the pocket. They also use soft baseball bats to help with ball security -- a drop-back drill in which the quarterback gets whacked with foam bats. The idea, of course, is to force him to keep two hands on the ball.
That has been a problem for Sanchez, who has 29 fumbles in three seasons.
Sanchez also has placed an emphasis on learning Sparano's pass-protection schemes. Some are man-to-man, some are slide-protection schemes. It's important for the quarterback to know what's happening in front of him. If he knows where the windows are located, he can find room to slide in the pocket and deliver an unobstructed pass.
"I feel like he's made strides in that area," Sparano said of Sanchez's footwork. "You have to realize that if there's a problem, you have to be open to criticism. Mark, from day one, has been very open that way and allowed us to coach him."
Sparano said they took a back-to-basics approach in the offseason, adding, "Sometimes you have to go back to go forward."
There was a moment in the scrimmage when all the hours in the classroom, all the drill work on the practice field, reaped a dividend. Under pressure, Sanchez slid to his left to buy an extra second, knowing exactly where his No. 3 read would be. He found running back Bilal Powell for a 5-yard touchdown pass.
Sparano liked that play.
"It's still early in the process," he said, "but I've seen the improvements with Mark."