- Ashley Fox
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PHILADELPHIA -- A smile creeps across Mark Sanchez's face. He is more humble now, more appreciative of every opportunity to play football. Every practice. Every drill. It all matters to him so much more now.
So when told that his new offensive coordinator with the Philadelphia Eagles, Pat Shurmur, said he can see why Sanchez played in two AFC Championship Games during his first two seasons with the New York Jets, Sanchez could not hide his pleasure.
"That feels good," Sanchez said, smiling.
Compliments have been difficult to come by for the 27-year-old Sanchez, who flamed out of New York after a blazing start as the fifth overall pick in the 2009 draft. After four road playoff wins in his first two seasons, there was the Butt Fumble, the benching and the boos. There was the Tim Tebow experiment, and the arrival of Geno Smith, the Jets' second-round draft pick last year, and a quarterback competition in training camp that Sanchez had all but wrapped up in August until the final indignity.
In the fourth quarter of the Jets' third preseason game against the Giants, coach Rex Ryan tapped Sanchez to replace the turnover-prone Smith under center. Sanchez wasn't expecting to play and was eating sunflower seeds on the sideline, and the Jets' second-string offensive line proved incapable of protecting him. When defensive tackle Marvin Austin drilled Sanchez in the shoulder, Sanchez's season and his Jets career were all but over.
If he is or ever was bitter about Ryan's indefensible decision to put him at risk in a meaningless game, Sanchez does not reveal it. He has moved on. Sanchez called sitting out last season with a torn labrum that was surgically repaired in October "an empty feeling, career-wise," but it wasn't without upside.
"It made me appreciate playing even more," he said, "and it showed me how fragile things are and how quickly things can change, so not only for the worse but for the better."
Sitting out did give Sanchez a chance to spend time with his family. He spent last season rehabilitating his throwing shoulder at the Jets' training facility in New Jersey; in Alabama near Dr. James Andrews, who performed his surgery; and in his native California. Back in Orange County, Sanchez got to see his 7-year-old nephew, Nico, play baseball and basketball, and that helped ease the pain of not playing.
Sanchez attended some Jets games, sitting in a luxury box at MetLife Stadium. He watched other games on television, which he said was "really weird."
But it was fairly obvious the Jets had moved on to their next franchise quarterback in Smith. Sanchez knew. His cap figure for 2014 was scheduled to be $13.1 million, and he was due to receive a $2 million roster bonus on March 25.
What had to be frustrating for Sanchez was that the Jets took their time to release him, even though everyone knew it was coming. New York wanted to bring in a viable backup quarterback before surrendering Sanchez, and it took more than a week into free agency for the Jets to sign Michael Vick. In the interim, the need for starting quarterbacks around the league all but evaporated.
After signing Vick on March 21, the Jets released Sanchez the same day. A week later, he signed with the Eagles because he believed Philadelphia was "the best opportunity for my career in the long run."
Sanchez met Chip Kelly when Kelly was offensive coordinator at New Hampshire and Sanchez was in high school. They played against each other when Kelly was offensive coordinator at Oregon and Sanchez was at USC. Sanchez liked Kelly's coaching style, the quick tempo of his offenses and his affinity for quarterbacks.
Sanchez signed a one-year contract for $2.25 million, which includes a $750,000 signing bonus and another $1.75 million in incentives he will earn if he plays 90 percent of the Eagles' offensive plays. That's unlikely, given that the Eagles brought Sanchez in to back up Nick Foles, who threw for 27 touchdowns and just two interceptions last season.
"Worst-case scenario, I'll get preseason film with a ton of weapons around me and be 100 percent," Sanchez said. "If Nick's kicking butt all year like he did last year, like we anticipate, then maybe we get up on some teams, and I get in late in the game, and then there's even more film."
Sometimes a change of scenery can be good for a player who suffers such an ignominious fall. Sanchez struggled during the Eagles' organized team activities, but his shoulder was not fully recovered yet. He was cautious and nervous. He was afraid his shoulder would betray him.
But after the Eagles' mandatory minicamp, he went home to Orange County to work out with his high school coach and confidante, Bob Johnson. He tested his arm. One day he'd throw the football a certain distance, the next a little farther, the next farther still. One day he threw into the wind. Eventually, he looked at his father, Nick Sanchez, and Johnson and concluded, "It's good."
It remains to be seen whether Sanchez, who played for three offensive coordinators in five seasons with the Jets, will get another opportunity to be a starter.
While Sanchez threw more postseason touchdown passes (nine) than any Jets quarterback in history, he also led the league in turnovers in 2011 and 2012 with 52 in total. He went 33-29 as the Jets' starter, but 6-12 in his last 18 games. His completion rate -- 55.1 percent over the course of his career -- needs to improve.
"There's no pressure on him," said one of Sanchez's former teammates. "That's when he's at his best. He dinks and dunks, and then he can be very accurate when he does throw it down the field. But in the Eagles' system, he doesn't have to think very much. The decisions are made for him. That will help."
Said Shurmur: "This guy knows how to win football games."
Sanchez wants another opportunity to do just that, to be a starter and lead a team, but he is realistic about his situation. He will be patient.
"Everybody wants to play. [Matt] Barkley and G.J. [Kinne] and myself, we'd all like to play, but that's just not the case right now," Sanchez said, referring to the other quarterbacks on the Eagles' roster. "So [I've] got to be a pro, come back strong, get some time to rehab, learn a new offense and just be ready to go, and I'll be ready."