During the first three weeks of his regular-season career, New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez passed every test. Last Sunday against the New Orleans Saints, he finally faltered, and the rookie must now prove that he can bounce back from a painful defeat.
A week ago, the 22-year-old Sanchez was still basking in the glory of a 3-0 start and the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Month award for September. Fans at the Meadowlands were gushing over their new signal-caller, comparing him to Joe Namath and labeling him a future Hall of Famer. But on the Jets’ trip to the Big Easy, the “San-chise” discovered that things don’t always come easy.
Sanchez struggled mightily against the complex defensive schemes of coordinator Gregg Williams, and the underrated Saints unit held him to just 138 yards and 14 completions on 27 attempts. They also induced four turnovers from Sanchez — three interceptions and a fumble — two of which directly resulted in New Orleans touchdowns.
Sanchez was able to build off the play of the Jets’ excellent defense in the first three games. But while Darrelle Revis, Kerry Rhodes & Co. held Drew Brees and the prolific Saints attack to just 10 points, Sanchez dug the Jets’ grave by handing them 14 more.
Perhaps the most pivotal play in the game came on the first snap of the second quarter, with the Jets facing second-and-8 on the New Orleans’ 15-yard line and trailing 3-0. Sanchez thought he saw tight end Dustin Keller open on a post-route near the goal line, and fired a pass that ended up in the hands of Saints safety Darren Sharper. Sharper took it all the way back for a 99-yard pick-six, and that instant 14-point swing set the tone for the rest of the afternoon.
To his credit, Sanchez — who had a pathetic 27.0 quarterback rating on the day — said all the right things after the 24-10 loss, putting the entire weight of the defeat on his shoulders.
“It’s tough when the rest of the team plays well enough to win and the quarterback doesn’t play very well,” the former USC Trojan said in Newsday. “Some costly mistakes early in the game, and late in the game, I started pressing too much and threw some ugly picks, but that’s the nature of the game.”
To this point in Sanchez’s football career, things have been remarkably simple for the rookie. The debacle against the Saints was an exception, and he suffered just two other setbacks in his collegiate days at USC.
His most recent one prior to Sunday was a stunning 27-21 upset at the hands of Oregon State on Sept. 25 last year, while Sanchez was leading the then-No. 1 ranked Trojans. Sanchez wasn’t chiefly to blame for that defeat — he completed 18-of-29 passes for 227 yards and three touchdowns — but he threw a critical interception with less than three minutes to go that clinched the win for the Beavers. Thus, the onus was on him to rally Pete Carroll’s USC squad to a victory over Oregon the next week.
Sanchez did just that, delivering one of his finest collegiate performances in a 44-10 rout over the Ducks. He passed for 332 yards and three touchdowns, did not turn the ball over, and exhibited the type of poise in the face of adversity that impressed NFL scouts.
That rebound performance contributed to the credentials that led the Jets to trade up and nab him with the fifth overall pick the NFL draft in April. Now, his teammates, fans and the New York media expect Sanchez to demonstrate the same ability to rally his troops back into the win column after a tough loss.
The stage is set for Sanchez. All eyes will be on him Monday night in a nationally televised game against the Dolphins in Miami. And he certainly has the tools to shine in the spotlight against a Dolphins defense that ranks dead last in the NFL with 8.7 yards allowed per pass attempt.
Sanchez will also have a new receiver to throw to in Braylon Edwards. The former first-round pick fell out of favor in Cleveland, but Edwards is an explosive downfield threat when focused and ready to play. The two will have to develop chemistry immediately, but Edwards’ familiarity with the Jets’ offensive playbook should greatly accelerate that process. Expect Sanchez to look for his new prime-time target whenever he needs a big play on Monday.
Entering the game with the Dolphins, the Jets are 3-1 and atop the AFC East standings because they defeated the New England Patriots in their meeting earlier this year. New York’s next three contests — home against Buffalo, at Oakland, and home against Miami — provide a perfect opportunity for Rex Ryan’s team to recover, get on a roll and head into their Week 9 bye at 7-1.
But for that rosy scenario to come to fruition, the Jets will need Mark Sanchez to regain his early-season form and lead the way.