When the New York Jets made a surprising move drafting Mark Sanchez fifth overall in the 2009 NFL draft, a potential franchise quarterback was found. Through months of offseason workouts and training camp, uncertainty swirled over Sanchez's prospects to earn the starting nod—especially recording just 16 starts at USC. However, the coaches' faith in the young signal caller has produced a 3-2 record heading into Sunday's division matchup against the Bills.
After being named the starting quarterback prior to a preseason game Aug. 26, Sanchez has shown the physical attributes and leadership the Jets envisioned when they selected him. Coach Rex Ryan believed Sanchez, 22, could evolve into a tremendous player but not without gaining trust first.
"We wouldn't have moved up where we did if we didn't think he had that ability to be a starter immediately, but I also wanted to make sure he earned it" Ryan said. "I think it's a position that is a leadership position, and I wanted to see how his teammates would react to him. We knew he had the poise, but I wanted his teammates to see it. And I wanted to sure he could absorb the playbook, which he has. Clearly to me, it was the right decision and a good one for our organization."
Similar to the emergence of other young quarterbacks around the league, Sanchez is finding success early in his career depending on the talent built around him. As Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco led the Ravens to a postseason berth in 2008, he relied on a strong running game and swarming defense to win games.
Sanchez is following a similar formula with the Jets. Even though his numbers aren't gaudy (75-134, 916 yards), Sanchez focuses on managing the game and executing the game plan. Because of his above average arm strength, he is expected to make plays with his arm but is accompanied with a power running game ranked seventh in the league in yards per game (132) and a ninth ranked defense—two components of Ryan's aggressive style.
As a result, Sanchez is benefitting from the opportunities to make plays downfield. While he passed for over 200 yards only once this season, he threw at least one touchdown pass in each of his first three contests and has a total of five scoring passes to five different receivers.
Ryan said unlike Flacco's rise to a starting role—the first two quarterbacks went down before the season—Sanchez had to earn the spot in the offseason workouts and training camp. Nevertheless, he said the rookie knows the caliber of players at his disposal.
"We're built on being able to run the football on offense with a veteran offensive line and we have two Pro Bowl running backs—so that definitely helps. When you look at the defensive side of the ball, its a strong unit," Ryan said. "Mark understands what he has and it's not about him. He just has to be a part of the solution and not the solution himself."
Sanchez is more than willing to give credit to his teammates, knowing he's still adjusting to the professional level.
"I'm taking it one week at a time and the biggest thing is I how fortunate I am to have these kind of players around me," he said. "The offensive line, running backs who can take all the pressure off me and receivers who make yards after the catch. Not mention a great defense and special teams. So it really is a perfect situation to play in."
The steady play of Sanchez caught the attention of teams throughout the league, including Bills defensive coordinator Perry Fewell. In addition to his talents as a runner and passer, Fewell was impressed with Sanchez's confidence in running multiple formations.
"I'm really surprised at how well he's commanded their offense. He doesn't seem to crack under pressure when people have put a lot of pressure on him," Fewell said. "They haven't cut back on their offense at all. They're a multiple offense with a lot of different sets. For a young guy to come in and do that, I'm thoroughly impressed with him."
Safety George Wilson said Sanchez's confidence is noticeable on the film, especially when he takes command of the offense with a veteran's demeanor.
"He shows poise and even a little swagger in the pocket. He's comfortable under center or in the pocket and can make all the throws." Wilson said. "You can tell in his approach to the game that he expects to succeed. He's not looking for a rookie quarterback excuse and inexperience to lean on. To me, he shows the amount of confidence he has and I can see why his coaches really support him and chose him as a starter."
When needing to rally his team, Sanchez has shown the ability to make throws in high pressure situations. After a dismal first half against the Patriots, completing just three attempts, he rallied the Jets to a 16-9 home victory.
For all the success he is being credited, however, Sanchez is quick to point out his downfalls. He's thrown the same amount of touchdowns as interceptions (five) and shown ball security issues with two lost fumbles. Sanchez showed his vulnerable tendencies as a rookie quarterback in losses to New Orleans and Miami the past two weeks.
"It's been a great experience so far and I know not a lot of rookie quarterbacks can say that, so I feel pretty fortunate. When you look at, I still have a lot of improvements to make. I'm not anywhere near happy with the way I'm playing, but happy that we've won a few games," he said. "The way guys get to be the Mannings, the Brees, the Bradys—they are never satisfied. I know I'm a rookie, I get it, but at the same time I don't want to set my standards to be a rookie quarterback."