Jets' rookie QB is already in rare territory
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Mark Sanchez had the play called and was prepared for what Cincinnati's defense was showing.
Then came the whistle.
New York Jets coach Rex Ryan had called a timeout, and the frustrated rookie quarterback trudged over to the sideline.
"I was like, 'Man, why the heck did you do that?' " Sanchez recalled Tuesday.
Ryan, it turns out, wanted to change the personnel and the play in the 24-14 victory over the Bengals last Saturday.
"We converted anyway, so it didn't matter," Sanchez said. "But, it was just one of those situations where I felt so good and so comfortable. Then, we stopped everything."
More than anything, that moment might have displayed how far Sanchez has come this season. Suddenly cool and more confident than ever, Sanchez is no longer playing or acting like a rookie.
"That's maybe a sign of growing up a little, I hope," Sanchez said. "Being able to fire back real quick, knowing what's going on, and six weeks ago would I have done that• I don't know. Maybe not. Maybe it would've been like, 'Oh, maybe I messed something up. Maybe I didn't get the formation right.' Now, I just feel more comfortable. It's easier, I guess, to start yelling."
Heading into the playoffs, Sanchez was often referred to by some as the Jets' weakest link. Too many mistakes and not enough experience, critics said.
"Sometimes I made it hard on myself being a hardheaded rookie," Sanchez said, "but we're coming along. We're in great position, and we just want to keep playing and keep winning."
With an efficient performance against Cincinnati, Sanchez joined Baltimore's Joe Flacco (2008), Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger (2004) and Tampa Bay's Shaun King (1999) as the only rookie quarterbacks to win postseason starts since 1970.
With another win at San Diego on Sunday, Sanchez also would join the three as the only rookie starting quarterbacks since the merger to reach the conference championship game.
"In the past, all my quarterbacks were veterans, like Trent Green, Rich Gannon," fullback Tony Richardson said. "Mark has played like a vet and performed very well in big games."
In the biggest game of his career to this point, Sanchez had his best performance last weekend. The numbers weren't eye-popping, but they didn't need to be. He was 12 for 15 for 182 yards and a touchdown, and posted a 139.4 quarterback rating that was the second-best in franchise postseason history. His 80 percent completion rate was also a Jets postseason record.
"When we called the timeout, it was so funny, like he was mad," Ryan said. "I said, 'All right, kid, you're not the head coach yet.' But he's ready to roll. And, like I say, he'll be a guy that goes to many Pro Bowls, all that kind of stuff. He's going to win a ton of games here."
Not surprisingly, the Jets' late-season surge has coincided with Sanchez improving his ball security. Armed with a color-coded system and numbered plays on his wrist to help him, Sanchez has been error-free in his last three games. He has completed 32 of 50 passes for 351 yards and one touchdown — and no interceptions — in the three victories.
"We've improved as an offense, but most importantly, just taking care of the football and making the right decisions, which is sometimes a conservative one and just playing smart," Sanchez said. "I have plenty of room to improve. I haven't arrived. I've still got a long way to go."
Sanchez is focused on doing things the way he has the last several weeks, and that's clear by taking a quick glance at his whisker-filled face.
"I haven't shaved and I think my parents hate it, but we've been winning," he said with a smile. "So, I don't want to change anything up. Go to the same places to eat, same routine."
And, why not• Back in the clean-shaven days of the first part of his rookie season, Sanchez often appeared unsure of himself. When things were going in his favor, he was the team's biggest cheerleader, jumping around and pumping his fists. When things went awry, such as when he threw five interceptions against Buffalo or four at New England, he sulked at times.
He still celebrates like a wild man when good things happen, such as his 45-yard touchdown pass to Dustin Keller last week. But he's also trying to be more of a leader, a guy his teammates can rely on in any situation.
"I think he's so comfortable now that this has become his offense," Ryan said. "I really love his presence in the huddle now. I really sense that our guys have a lot of confidence in him and he knows that he just has to play quarterback. He doesn't have to put it all on his shoulders, and I think that's why you see the success that he's had."