FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) — A bright green Post-It Note has been stuck on a cabinet in Mark Sanchez’s locker since last season.
The quote on it – from Joe Namath – remains a constant reminder for the New York Jets quarterback.
“What you should feel,” the note reads in block letters, “is that you are better than anyone out there.”
For a team that has its sights set on getting to a Super Bowl, and winning it, that’s exactly what they need their second-year quarterback to think with the football in his hands.
“I have a lot of faith in Mark,” coach Rex Ryan said. “I think if you look at it, the bigger the game, the better he played last year.”
After throwing 12 touchdown passes and 20 interceptions in the regular season, Sanchez thrived in the playoffs with four TDs and two INTs in three games and getting the Jets within 30 minutes of the Super Bowl.
That’s the Sanchez the Jets want to have, starting with the regular-season opener against Baltimore on Monday night at the New Meadowlands Stadium. By loading up on talent by bringing in players such as LaDainian Tomlinson, Jason Taylor and Santonio Holmes, it’s clear New York is in the win-now business.
“I’m thrilled about the growth I’ve had,” Sanchez said. “It seems like just in one year, I’ve gained so much experience just from playing and all that game experience has really helped in these situations in practice and situations that will come up this year. Hopefully, I’m better and more prepared.”
Preparation has never been a weakness for Sanchez. In July, he invited several of his offensive teammates to Southern California to work out together. Sanchez called it “Jets Camp West,” and even made up T-shirts. He also set up some exercise sessions that blew away his teammates.
“It was disgusting,” tight end Dustin Keller said. “We were in pretty good shape and they killed us. My abs, they cramped up and I couldn’t even stand straight. It was tough. … He was doing it all. He was exhausted, too, but he definitely trained pretty hard.”
Sanchez has also hit the books hard since last offseason, using the down time while he was rehabilitating from offseason knee surgery to increase his familiarity of the playbook. Ryan even had Sanchez call some offensive series during the preseason finale against Philadelphia, and the Jets scored twice.
“Nobody has put in more work than Mark has, and I think his teammates appreciate that type of work ethic,” Ryan said. “They know he’s put in more time than anybody else. It’s hard not to respect that.”
At 23 years old, Sanchez has the respect of his teammates as a leader. That’s not an easy task in the NFL, especially in a locker room loaded with veterans.
“Absolutely, I know for a fact I can (be a leader),” Sanchez said. “I’m becoming more assertive as a leader each day just with knowing that when I see a lull in practice and being able to say to a guy, ‘Hey, man, I need you now.’”
Fullback Tony Richardson, entering his 16th NFL season, sees the leader in Sanchez, even during those moments the quarterback gets frustrated with himself on the sideline after a mistake.
“You can definitely tell that his confidence level is a lot higher,” Richardson said. “Now, coming into this season, he realizes that, ‘Hey, I’m the starter, the leader of this offense,’ and it’s not like he’s carrying himself in an arrogant way, but he’s carrying himself with a lot more confidence.”
Good thing, because as much as the return of cornerback Darrelle Revis was important to making sure the defense was again championship caliber, Sanchez’s development will likely be the difference between whether the Jets can get to where Namath last led the franchise in 1969.
“I think there’s a lot of pressure on him,” Keller said. “I do think that he’s more than capable of living up to all the hype, though.”
Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis said Sanchez “struggles a lot when he has to throw the ball a lot.” It’s an assertion that has some validity: Sanchez threw 30 or more passes six times last season, including in the AFC championship game at Indianapolis. He had nine touchdowns and eight interceptions while going 2-4 in those games.
Still, Sanchez insists he’s no weak link if the Jets are forced into a shootout, especially with all the targets he has out there.
“Don’t put too much pressure on yourself,” Sanchez said. “Don’t try to do too much and be ready to be the point guard. Get the ball out of your hands and take care of it.”
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