FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) – Mark Sanchez refuses to pat himself on the back.
Not even when the New York Jets quarterback’s coaches and teammates are raving about him and his sizzling start.
“My line to people around the building has been: `Hey, every trash gets a steak,’ because I don’t want to buy into it,” Sanchez said Wednesday. “I don’t want to take the cheese.”
That means not listening to sports talk shows praising the second-year quarterback or reading stories about how he’s thrown six touchdowns and no interceptions while ranking third – behind Peyton Manning and Tom Brady – in the AFC with a 104.9 passer rating.
“I told Dustin (Keller) the same thing,” Sanchez said. “I said, `Hey, did you see your picture in the (New York) Post?’ He said, `Which one?’ I said, `No. The answer is no. Don’t like it. You can’t read it. It’s poison. Don’t look.’”
While it may seem extreme to some, Sanchez is quickly learning what he needs to do to be a consistent quarterback for a team that has big-time aspirations in a city filled with fanatics.
“You have to be smart and take the praise with the criticism,” he said. “And, stay level-headed.”
That perhaps more than anything else is what has elevated Sanchez’s game. As a rookie, Sanchez acknowledges he was harder on himself than any of his critics and it sometimes showed on the sideline with pouting and head-shaking.
He can deal with mistakes now – and, as he’s shown this season, avoid making them.
“The thing about Mark is that he doesn’t let any of that get to him now,” running back Shonn Greene said. “People can pound him and then the next week, they can look to him as a god. He just does a great job of staying focused.”
Not that it’s been an easy process by any means. He was considered by many to be the weak link of a veteran team last season, and again this season while Rex Ryan talked up his team as being Super Bowl-bound.
“A lot of people just look at last regular season and say, `Hey, the defense carried him the entire year,’ but once we got to the playoffs, he made big-time plays,” wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery said. “We were like, if he catches fire during the course of a game, it could get ugly out there for the defense.”
Not that it’s been all pretty for Sanchez this season. In the season-opening loss against Baltimore, he was just 10 for 21 for 74 yards as the offense failed to get into the end zone.
The performance seemed an ominous indicator of what this offense might be. To his credit, Sanchez warned against being too judgmental after only one game.
“He took control of this offense,” Keller said.
Sure enough, Sanchez was terrific in a win against New England in Week 2, going 21 for 30 for 220 yards and a career-high three touchdowns while outplaying Brady. There was more of the same Sunday in Miami, when Sanchez led New York back from a second-half deficit and threw for 256 yards and three more scores.
“Mark had the New England game where it just, boom, clicked for him,” Cotchery said. “Now, he’s found that comfort zone and he’s able to let his talents take over. That’s what we’ve been striving to do since he came here, and sometimes it takes time.”
With Buffalo up next for New York, Sanchez is reminded of perhaps the worst moment of his NFL career. He was visibly shaken after throwing five interceptions in that game in Week 6, wondering how long it would take to bounce back from such a lousy performance.
“It was like your dog died or something,” he said. “It was the worst. Those games are hard. Those games are part of being a rookie and a part of making really bad decisions. That’s what can happen, and still can happen. You’re not immune to that.”
Sensing his quarterback was taking his performance hard, general manager Mike Tannenbaum hung a list in Sanchez’s locker of every quarterback who had thrown four or more interceptions in a game.
“Every great quarterback you can think of: Steve Young, Troy Aikman, John Elway, Dan Marino, Joe Namath, Brett Favre,” Sanchez said. “Everybody’s on that list. It’s not like you can’t come back from that. I’s not like your life is over, even though it feels like it.”
Sanchez had a few clunkers mixed in the rest of last season – four picks against New England, three against Atlanta – but it all helped him reach this point.
“He’s having the kind of year we expect,” Ryan said. “The thing I loved about Mark, his confidence never left. He’s got plenty of confidence and the team has confidence in him. We know he’s the leader of our team right now.”
Even his presence in the huddle has improved to the point that none of his teammates feel Sanchez isn’t in total control. His playful personality also comes out as he keeps things loose, even in the most stressful of in-game moments with a joke or acting silly before getting down to business.
“He’s just on fire right now,” Cotchery said. “Everything has just slowed down for him, it looks like, and the fun personality that he has, everyone’s able to see that out on the field.”
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