By Jeff Capellini, CBSNewYork/WFAN.com
NEW YORK (WFAN) — Following Sunday’s anxiety-inducing win in our nation’s capital, fans of the victorious visiting team, seemingly several rows deep, lined the railings overlooking the player tunnel to the field. There, in their own way, they belted out a chorus or two of “Hail to the Chief.”
It was fitting.
Because like it or not, love him or hate him, respect him or wish the team had drafted differently nearly three years ago, Mark Sanchez is the commander-in-chief of the Jets.
As far as the wacky world of Jets fans’ allegiance goes, the abuse this player takes daily is the stuff of legend. Many other players throughout the decades have been ridiculed, but with the advent of social media and a growing and seemingly instantaneous reporting process, it seems all the news fit to print — and a lot of it that really shouldn’t be — is known about this 25-year-old before he even has a chance to digest it and prepare. Be it in the media or among the so-called “Nation” of “fans,” Sanchez has somehow survived two years and 12 regular season games of constant badgering, poking and prodding.
To the majority, Sanchez will never be truly accepted until he leads the Jets to their first Super Bowl championship since Joe Namath. To the rest, he’s a cross between the great green and white hope and a cautionary tale. They don’t quite know yet what to make of him, but are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
But, now seems to be a word that’s adjusted weekly. It appears when you don’t hear about Sanchez he’s doing something right, but when you do he’s invariably done something deemed unacceptable.
Now is that just the nature of the beast in New York? Or is it something more, something singularly unique to this player and this player only?
It’s hard to put a finger on it, really, because the other team in town has a quarterback that often finds himself teetering on the same abyss.
And he’s already won a ring.
Comparing Sanchez and Eli Manning isn’t really fair because football is a team sport. Would all of the things Manning is lauded for have been possible without players like David Tyree and Plaxico Burress at his side? Who knows? But history is what it is when you reach the summit of the NFL world. The bottom line is YOU won.
But on the flip side of that often-two headed coin is the fact that in this town winning simply isn’t enough. Manning has rebounded from what was a largely subpar 2010 season to put up what will likely end up as the greatest season of his eight-year career. He’s on pace to obliterate his previous bests in passing yards, yards-per-game, rating, touchdown-to-interception ratio and completion percentage.
But the Giants are just 6-6 and look the furthest thing from a lock to get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
When situations like this arise, traditionally, who gets the blame? Largely the quarterback, of course.
Sanchez is in a decidedly different boat, but with the same type of ridicule attached. While he’s also on course to have his best statistical season, achieving as much will matter little to the championship-starved masses of the Jets universe because, while back-to-back AFC Championship game appearances were nice, to the rabid horde it’s not enough, not remotely close to enough.
Is it “fair”? That’s not really a word the Jets fan understands.
All they know is Sanchez has not made the ascension they’ve expected in his third season. While he’s had his moments he’s largely still the same kid who looks scared out there. He’s the king of the check-down toss, the deer-in-headlights signal caller who locks in on his first read and stays with him, come hell or high water.
Now, you could debate, as I have, that we’ll never really know who Sanchez is until he’s had the benefit of playing under an offensive coordinator that doesn’t live in the 1950s when it comes to planning his weekly approach to winning football games. Statistics do not lie as if you look around the Internet there are reputable sites out there that show quarterbacks who have left the Brian Schottenheimer system that have enjoyed far more success elsewhere.
But that’s neither here nor there at this point because Schottenheimer still has a job. And though nearly every Jets fan would love to see him move on after this season, there are no guarantees that he will, even if this 7-5 team misses out on the playoffs, something that’s all but assured to happen should it drop more than one of its remaining four games and not get massive amounts of help.
The Jets have won two in a row and though his statistics have been nothing to write home about during the mini streak, there’s little doubt Sanchez is the primary reason why the Jets still have a pulse. He’s 36-of-67 for 345 yards over the last two weeks and people love nothing more than to point to that 53 percent completion rate and shake their heads, saying “I told you so. This kid is now and shall forever remain mediocre at best.”
But the Jets have scored 62 points during their streak and Sanchez has thrown five TD passes to just one interception. While there’s no question he’s displayed many of the same disturbing tendencies that have been well documented, the bottom line is when it’s mattered he’s made the big throws.
Sanchez followed up his career-high four-TD effort against Buffalo with just one scoring pass on Sunday in the 34-19 win in Washington.
But oh what a touchdown it was.
All set up by a brilliant pump fake that froze a few members of the Redskins secondary, Sanchez hit Santonio Holmes in stride down the left sideline with just under 5 minutes to play in the fourth quarter for a 30-yard score that put the Jets up for good. They would tack on two Shonn Greene rushing touchdowns to cap what was a 21-point final quarter explosion, one that kept the Jets thinking about the playoffs instead of where they may vacation in a month.
The one time he was allowed to throw deep he came up massive. I say “allowed” because it became readily apparent through use of the asinine wildcat and a lot of the play-calling throughout the contest that Schottenheimer had little faith in his quarterback. Really? With the season on the line you have rookie Jeremy Kerley in the backfield taking snaps?
The Sanchez-to-Holmes connection ended a five-play, 49-yard drive and while it wasn’t reminiscent of the 82-yard late fourth-quarter drive he engineered the week before against the Bills, it had the same effect.
The Jets won, largely because Sanchez showed once again he’s among the toughest quarterbacks in the game. Not the best by any means, but he has guts. To say otherwise is just flat idiotic. His four playoff wins didn’t come by accident. He had incredible moments as a rookie and sophomore. He’s progressed somewhat as a junior. Why would you think he won’t continue to get better, albeit at perhaps a glacial pace at times, but better nonetheless?
So you as fans really have just two choices here. You can continue to bash this player without looking at the big picture or you could hold your tongues for an entire 60 minutes and see how things shake out. That’s not really asking a lot. Just be responsible instead of emotional for a few hours.
And while Sanchez will likely never be that “elite” quarterback you all crave, he is something you’ve been too preoccupied to notice or admit:
He’s a winning quarterback.
And when the Jets live up to the hype, play the type of defense for a full 60 minutes the way they are designed to, run the football with the ferocity you expect from largely the same unit as was present the two previous seasons, Sanchez should indeed be enough to take this team further than your pessimistic heart thinks it’s capable.
All too often we forget football is a team game. It’s a 53-man exercise in patience, humility and execution. Sanchez is not ideal. He’s not prototypical. He likely would not singlehandedly lead a lesser roster than what the Jets currently possess to the promised land.
But as one player on a roster such as this, with more talent per player than the vast majority of teams in the NFL, there’s no reason why he can’t. He’s already proven he has all the intangibles you need from your quarterback to win and win big when it matters most.
The only thing Sanchez is truly guilty of is not presenting the total package to you with a nice red bow on top.
But all leaders have their faults. The fans who made the trek to Washington on Sunday seemed to grasp that fact. They took the largely bad with the good and saw that game through to its conclusion. They then rightly showered the man mostly responsible for the win with the praise he deserved.
It’s time the rest of us stop looking for the quick fix. Sanchez may forever be a work in progress, but he’s your work in progress, one that isn’t going anywhere any time soon.
“Hail to the Chief?”
You’re damn right. And if he keeps this up, even without your style points approval, to the victor could most certainly come the spoils.
Please read more columns by Jeff Capellini.
Has your opinion of Sanchez changed? Are you more willing to let things play out before criticizing him? Please offer your thoughts in the comments section below.