FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Mark Sanchez tries not to concern himself with what people say about him. And, he knows they say plenty.
There are those who think the New York Jets quarterback will never be an elite NFL player or lead the team to a Super Bowl. Still, there are others who believe he’s the undisputed leader of the franchise, well on his way to being a star after two straight trips to the AFC championship game.
“Going through the experiences I have on the field where you win a few games, you lose a few games, you win big games or lose a stretch of games,” Sanchez said Wednesday, “you hear it all.”
Some fans and media compare Sanchez to quarterbacks such as New England’s Tom Brady or Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and insist he’ll never come close to playing at their level. They also scoffed when coach Rex Ryan called Sanchez an “elite” quarterback during training camp.
“If you’re basing everything on statistics and everything else, then maybe he wouldn’t be an elite quarterback, but I base things on wins,” Ryan said. “Obviously, we’re not where we want to be this season. We’re at 4-3 right now, but I think when you look at his history, he’s tied for the most road playoff victories in the history of the National Football League, and that’s not bad for a guy who’s into his third season. So I’ll go ahead and take him.
“You can call him elite or not if you want, that’s fine. I like where he’s at.”
That means Ryan certainly doesn’t agree with those who have suggested Sanchez has regressed in his third NFL season. Truth is, Sanchez is off to the best statistical start of his career. Sure, his 55.8 completion percentage ranks among the league’s worst, but it’s still a point better than last season and two points better than his rookie year.
He has thrown for 1,545 yards and 12 touchdowns — just five off his career high — and only six interceptions. Sanchez’s 83.0 quarterback rating is right in the middle of the pack, but also marks a jump from his first two seasons.
But with the Jets (4-3) facing a crucial two-game stretch against AFC rivals Buffalo and then New England, Sanchez knows he needs to be even better. A second-half playoff run will likely depend on it.
“One of the most important things is the fact that as good as they say you are, you probably aren’t that good, and as bad as they say you are, you’re probably not that bad,” Sanchez said. “You just have to take the whole thing in stride and rely on your teammates, call on these guys to play their best and when it’s going great, dish out the praise. When it’s going bad, absorb all of the criticism and move on.”
Through it all, he’s managing his critics and wide receivers’ expectations with poise. That was clear to his teammates in the midst of the Jets’ three-game losing streak earlier this season.
“I think he’s handled it great,” said wide receiver Patrick Turner, a former teammate of Sanchez at Southern California. “When you have a guy on your team who’s a quarterback that can get guys fired up by what he says before the game or calling a meeting, that’s just maturity. I feel like he’s just grown. He’s the same old Mark to me, but in this business, he’s done a great job.”
One big issue has been keeping his big-name receivers, Plaxico Burress and Santonio Holmes, satisfied in the offense. The Jets were a throw-first team early in the season, but have returned to their “Ground-and-Pound” approach, something Ryan insists is a huge key to success.
With the team struggling to find its offensive identity early, Holmes’ production has been far from elite, especially since the Jets re-signed him to a five-year, $50 million deal in the offseason. Holmes has just 22 catches for 311 yards and three scores, and there was a report recently that he was unhappy with how he’s being used.
“Never heard that one,” Holmes said. “Next question. I didn’t talk to anybody about it. Never heard about it.”
But is he happy with his role?
“We’re here winning ballgames right now,” Holmes said.
Hardly a ringing endorsement, but Sanchez deals with that the same way he has with everything else.
“We’re not in the business of keeping people smiling,” he said. “We’re in the business of winning.”
Sanchez has done lots of that during his football career, including back at USC, when he led the Trojans to a Rose Bowl victory over Penn State in 2009 a few months before being the No. 5 pick in the NFL draft. He played on a big college stage at USC, but that experience did little to prepare him for the red-hot New York spotlight.
“It helped, but it was always so good at SC,” Sanchez said. “There was no adversity. How many times did I have to play a fourth-quarter game and really come back? In 16 games, twice, and we lost them both. So it’s like, ‘What can this guy really do? Who knows?’ It’s a crapshoot.”
His lowest NFL moment came against the Bills as a rookie when he threw five interceptions and Ryan considered pulling him. Fans flooded sports talk shows begging the Jets to bench him.
“Yeah, it was like, ‘Nope, this guy’s not ready for that,'” Sanchez said. “Then last year, we won four games in a row on the last play almost. So, however many fourth-quarter comebacks we have now just becomes a part of you. It’s one of your tools in your toolbox and you go to it when you need it.”
Such as in the Jets’ last game against the Chargers, when Sanchez helped lead New York to a 27-21 victory that sent the team into the bye confident again with a two-game winning streak. It was also Sanchez’s seventh fourth-quarter comeback in the NFL.
“He’s our general,” Holmes said. “He keeps us under control. We have to control him a little bit when he loses his cool, but he’s one of those guys that’s always tapping us on the back: ‘I got you next time.’ Just keeping us all high spirited. … As far as the things he has to control, he has a lot on his plate and he’s doing a real good job of controlling it.”