FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Mark Sanchez has been knocked around all season, battered by defensive linemen on the field and by critical fans and media members off it.
It has been one trying year for the embattled New York Jets quarterback. And, he acknowledges, he has brought a lot of it on himself. But he wants those who criticize him to know this: You’re not going to drag him down.
“Win, lose or draw, I’m the luckiest guy in the world, I promise,” Sanchez said Wednesday. “I’m lucky to be here. I’m lucky, fortunate, blessed, whatever you want to call it. I’m thrilled about this job and about this opportunity this week.”
Sanchez was referring to the chance he and the Jets (8-7) have to make right all that has gone wrong this season, and there has been plenty. New York is heading to play AFC East rival Miami (5-10) needing to win and also get plenty of help from other teams to have a chance at a third straight playoff trip.
The Jets had control of their postseason hopes at this time a week ago, but a miserable performance by Sanchez and his teammates in a 29-14 loss to the Giants last Saturday took care of all that.
“Look, the game never worked out,” coach Rex Ryan said. “That’s not the only game we’ve ever lost, but you’ve got to move on from it. You’ve got a challenge right in front of you. We have an opportunity. The facts are this: I know for sure that if we don’t win, we’re not in, so we better win, and we’ll see what happens. We’ll do whatever it takes, light candles, we’ll do it all.”
But it could all come down to the play of Sanchez, who threw a career-high 59 passes last week — something Ryan says “there is no way” the Jets will do again. It was much more than that, though: Sanchez threw two interceptions against the Giants, lost a fumble near the goal line and was sacked for a safety that sealed it.
“Have we played our best? No,” Sanchez said. “But it’s still the best time I could possibly scheme up in my head. We just have to keep pressing, be smart, win the game and see what happens.”
Despite two straight losses that have the Jets’ season teetering on the brink, Sanchez appeared more upbeat than he has in weeks. He was almost sullen while talking to the media previously.
Not on Wednesday. Sanchez answered every question as if he had snapped out of a funk, seeming more confident and thick-skinned even while some outside the team have wondered more than ever if he can lead the Jets to a Super Bowl. Not only that, fans and media members are debating whether this is as good as Sanchez will ever be.
He says there’s “no question” that he has “absolutely” improved in his third season.
“Whether it’s defensive recognition or clock management and stuff like that, understanding the offense and the system, I’m light years ahead,” he said.
The numbers actually aren’t all bad. His career-high 24 touchdown passes are the most since Vinny Testaverde had a franchise-high 29 in 1998. Sanchez is also on pace to have career highs in completions, completion percentage, quarterback rating and yards per game. But he also has been sacked a career-high 37 times and lost eight fumbles, and his decision-making and ability to read defenses have been questioned.
“I’m not out to prove anything like that to people,” Sanchez said of whether he’s the quarterback of the future. “I just want to work hard for these guys on the team. These guys know I’m leading by example, being vocal if I need to. These are the guys I’m playing for right here in this locker room and in this building.”
Sanchez has taken lots of the blame for the inadequacies and inconsistencies of the offense, and so has coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. Ryan said it should ultimately lead back to him, not Schottenheimer or the guy he still deems a franchise-type quarterback — even if few outside the organization do.
“That kind of stuff happens when you’re not playing as well as you’d like to,” Sanchez said, “and when your team is not in control of their own destiny in the playoffs and stuff like that. That’s natural and that’s a part of this league, so you have to handle that stuff.”
Sanchez believes he “absolutely, no question” has the support of everyone in his locker room. Players such as Pro Bowl center Nick Mangold and tight end Dustin Keller say they are impressed by how Sanchez has dealt with the criticism, and insist it’s not all his fault. They say the line could block and protect better, the running backs could churn out more yards and the receivers could run better routes.
“He works hard, things haven’t gone particularly well for him or us, but he comes in and works hard every day,” wide receiver Plaxico Burress said. “There’s no doubt about it that he’s going to get better.”
Sanchez believes he can start in that direction Sunday in Miami with the season on the line.
“I don’t think we’ve hit our potential this year, that’s for sure,” he said, “but that doesn’t mean that we can’t accomplish a lot of the goals that we set out to accomplish. We have a chance.”
Notes: LB Garrett McIntyre has a sprained knee and didn’t practice. His availability for Sunday’s game was uncertain. … Ryan said LB Ricky Sapp would be promoted from the practice squad to fill the spot vacated when the Jets waived WR Eron Riley on Tuesday.