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Jets’ Sanchez Defies the Rookie Label
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Each Tuesday, quarterback Mark Sanchez receives the Jets’ offensive game plan for their next opponent by e-mail. By Wednesday morning, he has printed and reviewed the plan about 15 times and filled his notebook with questions for the offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer.
When compiling the list of tasks that Sanchez does not perform like a rookie — converting third downs, commanding the huddle, posing for GQ photo shoots — add studying on his lone night off.
“I feel comfortable, more and more comfortable each week,” he said Wednesday. “I’m on that steady climb.”
In Sanchez the Jets trust. But that extends beyond the richest contract in team history, beyond the “Sanchise” nickname, beyond his standing as the franchise’s first rookie starting quarterback in three decades.
More than that, the Jets’ trust in Sanchez is evident in how much of the playbook they installed and entrusted to a player who started only 16 games in college. Sanchez described the playbook as “monster” in size, but reduced to “small slivers” each week that are designed to attack the weakness of a particular opponent.
The Jets could have installed part of the playbook during training camp, then added to Sanchez’s available plays as the season progressed. Even Sanchez thought about this, so he recently sought out the backup quarterback Kellen Clemens and asked him how many plays the Jets were holding back.
“Dude, this is all we’ve got,” Sanchez said Clemens told him.
Two games into his undefeated N.F.L. career, Sanchez talks more about his comfort level than his confidence level. He never lacked confidence. But each week, his comfort level — with the Jets’ offense, with his command of the playbook, with the speed of N.F.L. defenses — increases exponentially.
Knowing the full playbook only eases that transition; Sanchez can focus on mastering specific plays instead of learning several new ones. (The Jets do add plays each week for specific opponents.)
“The kid is pretty far along,” fullback Tony Richardson said. “Once you’re in your third game, after the success he’s had, I don’t think we can even call him a rookie anymore.”
Sanchez ranks first in the American Football Conference — and fourth in the N.F.L. — on third-down passer rating (119.5). His play in the first two games has helped the Jets’ offense overcome what has been a shakier ground game than expected. Since Rex Ryan arrived as coach in January, even after the Jets traded up to draft Sanchez, Ryan has promised that the Jets would pound the ball, using their running backs to protect their quarterback from compromising situations.
The Jets have been able to incorporate Leon Washington more into the game plan, giving him the ball nearly 20 times a game, and Thomas Jones has been as steady as ever. But the rookie running back Shonn Greene was active last week against New England and did not play.
Again Wednesday, Ryan labeled the offensive line as the team’s primary strength, despite his earlier criticism of that unit’s performance against the Patriots. But that has not yet translated into the rush offense the Jets had hoped for.
Sure, they rank seventh in the N.F.L. in rushing yards per game (153.5). But that is a statistic skewed by one half against Houston when the Jets rushed for 149 yards. In the Jets’ other three halves, they have rushed for an average of 52.7 yards.
In both of their games, the Jets ran more than they passed, but at a percentage closer to even than the offensive players expected. This shows the team’s confidence in Sanchez to sling the ball when necessary and it shows some of the issues the offense is having against defenses intent on stopping the run first.
“We’re not where we want to be,” Richardson said. “Against us, I would load the box and make the quarterback beat me. But we want to get to a point where teams can put as many guys in the box as they want, and we’ll still run the football.”
Sanchez proved adept against Houston at converting third downs. Against the Patriots, he struggled in the first half, then connected with receiver Jerricho Cotchery for a 45-yard gain on the first offensive play of the third quarter.
In each game, Sanchez leaned on Clemens, the quarterback he beat out for the starting job. On Wednesday, Sanchez showered Clemens with praise, comparing him to a big brother, an on-field coach and the guy he would want to marry his sister, if he had a sister.
“You need a ride somewhere? You need to borrow five bucks?” Sanchez asked. “That’s the guy.”
Sanchez’s latest opponent, the Tennessee Titans, also gave him high grades entering the draft. Coach Jeff Fisher said they liked Sanchez’s poise, pocket presence and decision making.
Fisher said he noticed in watching game films that Sanchez played like a “six-year veteran” against the Texans and “understood what his problems were” against the Patriots.
The Titans have struggled against the pass this season; they rank last in the N.F.L. The Jets could ask Sanchez to throw the ball more than he has this season. Or they could attempt to set up the passing game by running.
Either way, Sanchez knows the playbook better than his teammates expected he would by now.
“Mark’s got to make good, accurate decisions, quick decisions, and then deliver the ball with accuracy,” Ryan said. “This is going to be a big test for him.”
The injured cornerbacks Lito Sheppard (quadriceps) and Donald Strickland (ankle) did not practice Wednesday.
By GREG BISHOP