Jets’ season hinges on Sanchez’s improvement

Posted Aug. 02, 2011, at 9:31 p.m.

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Mark Sanchez stood off to the side with Plaxico Burress, pointed at the offense on the practice field and discussed what he saw with his new wide receiver.

The New York Jets quarterback was under center a few minutes later when he shouted out a few signals and noticed something in the defense. Sanchez was in total control, and that’s the way things are these days for the guy who carries his team’s Super Bowl hopes on his shoulders.

“In these first couple of years, I haven’t been sure about what to say, when to say it,” he said. “And now it’s time to go with your instincts and mean it, and just demand everybody’s respect and demand their best play on the field. I need to have all of my stuff in order, and that’s what this camp is all about.”

Sanchez has helped lead the Jets to the AFC championship game in each of his first two seasons and played well in the playoffs. But coach Rex Ryan, as he always does, has said this is the year New York goes all the way. That means Sanchez is going to have to be that much better in his third season.

“Just one goal — one goal each year for everyone in the building,” Sanchez said. “From the cooks in the cafeteria to the strength staff and the training staff, it’s all of us. And it starts with me.”

Pressure? Sure. But his teammates believe in him. And, that’s a huge factor.

“I spent some time with Mark this offseason and I’ve watched him work,” wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery said. “He’s serious.”

Sanchez’s playful personality is still there at times in the meeting rooms, playing jokes on his coaches and teammates. But when it comes down to business, there’s no one more focused.

“Well, he’s … he is a goofball, so he’s going to continue to be a goofball,” Cotchery said, laughing. “But he has a seriousness about him. It’s like, ‘It’s on me.’ That’s the approach I see right now. ‘Follow me. I’ve been putting in the work. I hope you all have been putting in the work, too.’ He’s ready to lead this team.”

Sanchez has had some flashes of brilliance, along with some inconsistent patches of bad decision-making that have cost the team some victories. But those bad moments have been overshadowed by the fact he often has found ways to lead his team to wins when they count most.

After all, Sanchez has four postseason victories, already a franchise record. Yes, more than even Joe Namath.

Sanchez also is tied with Len Dawson, Jake Delhomme, Joe Flacco and Roger Staubach for the most postseason road victories in NFL history. He also joined Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger as the only two quarterbacks in NFL history to reach the conference championship in their first two seasons.

All of that had Burress, signed to a one-year deal Sunday after serving 20 months in prison on a gun charge, excited about what Sanchez might be able to accomplish — maybe as soon as this season.

“I’ve played with two young, great quarterbacks and now they’re Super Bowl champions,” said Burress, referring to Roethlisberger and the Giants’ Eli Manning. “I feel Mark has all the tools to be an elite quarterback in this league and play at a high level and win a championship.”

That’s quite an endorsement, but not the only one. Ryan has been so impressed by what Sanchez has done in his first two seasons as a leader that he made him one of the team’s offensive captains. He usually rotates captains for each game, but acknowledged that this truly is Sanchez’s team.

His teammates, many of whom are significantly older and more experienced than their 24-year-old quarterback, heartily agree.

“Mark is at that point where he is ready to be the captain,” running back LaDainian Tomlinson said. “Usually, people say, you might get more progress from year one to year two. Then, year two to year three is when you really start to figure it out and you take over as the captain, as the leader. Mark has proven that.”

For the second straight offseason, Sanchez gathered a large group of his offensive teammates in Southern California for his “Jets West” camp to give them a chance to practice together and bond. With the lockout dragging on in June and players not allowed to practice at the team’s facility, Sanchez brought the entire team together in New Jersey — a so-called “Jets East” camp.

“In the NFL, it’s all about putting in work,” Cotchery said. “Everyone’s seen the work he’s put in for those two seasons and we’re like, ‘OK, we’ve gone to the AFC championship game two years straight and he’s played well in those crucial playoff games.’ So, it’s like, OK, he’s ready. That’s why there wasn’t any hesitation when he came up with ‘Jets West’ and ‘Jets East.’ Everybody el se was just waiting for the go-ahead.”

About 40 players showed up for the workouts in New Jersey, with Sanchez running the classroom sessions that included some players who didn’t even know if they’d be back with the Jets.

“I think we all realized how far Mark has come because he was the coach in the meeting room,” Tomlinson said. “We didn’t have a coach. Mark was the coach. He taught everybody what to do, went out there on the field and performed. He’s at that point now where he is ready to take it to the next level.”

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