Commentary

What'll Mark Sanchez do for an encore?

QB's star power on and off the field has changed the Jets' recipe for success

Updated: November 25, 2010, 3:25 AM ET
By Rich Cimini | ESPNNewYork.com

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Out of the madness has emerged a new truth about the New York Jets: This is Mark Sanchez's team. He's the face of the Jets and their personality, too.

Amid the crazy finishes of the past month, not only has Sanchez established himself as The Man, but his sudden development has changed the way the Jets play football. They still call themselves a ground-and-pound team, but they're not grounding and pounding opponents the way they did last season, and the defense isn't scaring the bejesus out of quarterbacks as it once did.

And that's OK, because the whole mix still is good enough as long as Sanchez continues to do what he's doing. It wasn't supposed to happen this quickly, only 25 starts into his career, but the Jets' Super Bowl dream rests on his right arm. Funny how quickly that changed. A year ago, they didn't want him to lose games. Now they need him to win them.

The Cincinnati Bengals will be in the new Meadowlands Stadium on Thursday night, the ideal opponent to make a comparison. When the two teams met in January in the AFC wild-card game, Sanchez played wonderfully in his first playoff start, but he attempted only 15 passes -- none of which traveled more than 20 yards in the air.

Now look: In the past four weeks, Sanchez has thrown for more yards (1,206) than any other quarterback in the league. He should put up more numbers against the Bengals' injury-depleted secondary and meek pass rush.

"He's not Peyton Manning, but you're seeing similar growth," Jets coach Rex Ryan said. "This guy is going to be special. I think he's headed down that path."

Sanchez has graduated from the School of Game Management, and that didn't happen until recently. On opening night, the coaches were afraid to let him throw against the big, bad Baltimore Ravens, and the Jets lost. Now the Jets have evolved into a true 50-50 offense.

Actually, it's been 55-45 (pass-run) in the past three games.

"Last year it was run, run, run, run -- surprise 'em with a pass -- run, run, run," tight end Dustin Keller said. "This year, we can throw the ball when we want to, not when we need to."

Sanchez has earned the trust of the coaches, and that has made a huge difference in how they approach games. Because they're scoring more points than last season, increasing the margin for error, it has reduced the pressure on the defense.

If the defense had a bad day last season, it was curtains. The Jets were 0-5 in games when the opponent scored more than 17 points. This season they're 6-0 in those games, thanks to Sanchez and his big-play receivers, newcomer Santonio Holmes and Braylon Edwards.

The more ways you can win a game, the better off you'll be in January. It's a passing league, with recent history showing that run-oriented teams are less likely to win the Super Bowl than the multidimensional offenses.

Sanchez is backing up his prediction for the season. He arrived at training camp talking about how he was going to take ownership of the offense. It sounded good and made for a nice headline, but the words came off as hollow. An athlete doesn't announce himself as a leader; he earns it.

Now he has. Sanchez's fourth-quarter moxie is something else. When the Houston Texans took a four-point lead in the final minute Sunday, converting an interception into a field goal, Sanchez noticed the stadium was starting to empty out.

"All right," he said to himself, "the people that are here are going to get a show."

They did, as Sanchez directed his third fourth-quarter comeback win in five games. That was a knock on him when he came out of USC, scouts wondering whether he could lead a team back from the brink. He had no fourth-quarter comebacks in 16 college starts and, to the best of his recollection, none in high school.

"It's always been something that I kind of wanted," he said, meaning that reputation as a crunch-time quarterback.

Coincidentally, Sanchez happened to be watching a TV show last week that showed the 10 greatest comebacks in NFL history. He was mesmerized by the Buffalo Bills' amazing rally against the Houston Oilers in the '92 playoffs, with understudy Frank Reich leading the way.

A few days after the TV show, Sanchez did a number on the current Houston franchise, leading a 72-yard touchdown drive in 39 seconds. He saved the Jets from one of their worst defeats ever.

"How crazy is that?" he asked backup Mark Brunell in the locker room, alluding to the comeback show.

Nothing enhances a quarterback's street cred like the ability to lead in the clutch. Inside his own locker room, Sanchez isn't perceived anymore as the guy riding the coattails of others. Now he owns the coat.

Ryan tells a funny story. Just last week, he was chatting during a break in practice with Holmes, Edwards and owner Woody Johnson. Sanchez, from across the field, called for Holmes.

No, Holmes said, I'm talking with the owner.

"No, no, you're coming over here," Sanchez demanded.

This time, Holmes obeyed the command.

"That," Ryan said of his quarterback, "is the kind of clout this guy is carrying."

Rich Cimini covers the Jets for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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Rich Cimini

ESPN New York Jets reporter

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