FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Bum shoulder? What bum shoulder?
Two days after admitting it was "pretty sore" after a brief, no-pass outing against the Buffalo Bills, quarterback Mark Sanchez insisted Tuesday his highly scrutinized right shoulder will be just fine for the New York Jets' wild-card game Saturday night against the Indianapolis Colts. His coach agreed, emphatically, almost acting like the injury never happened.
"He's playing well and we don't have an excuse," Rex Ryan said. "That shoulder is not an excuse for our football team. Nothing is."
Nevertheless, opposing scouts find it curious that the Jets seemingly have altered their passing attack since Sanchez hurt his shoulder Dec. 19 in a win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. Since the injury, which occurred in the first quarter in chilly Pittsburgh, the Jets have employed a quick-release, short-passing game.
Over the past three games, counting his cameo appearance in the regular-season finale, Sanchez has attempted only three passes that traveled more than 20 yards in the air -- a 38-yard sideline completion to Braylon Edwards in Pittsburgh, a 23-yard touchdown to a wide-open Santonio Holmes in Chicago and a game-ending interception in Chicago that was a 26-yard throw.
Prior to the shoulder issue, the Jets weren't exactly a bombs-away attack, but Sanchez did attempt 52 passes in the over-20 range -- an average of four per game, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
There was no reason to stop, considering the positive results. For the season, Sanchez completed 16 of 55 for 579 yards, six touchdowns and four interceptions -- a passer rating of 77.0, nearly two points better than his overall rating.
The Jets have refused to provide any specifics about the nature of the injury, calling it a "sore" shoulder. One thing about NFL teams and shoulder injuries to quarterbacks: You're not going to get the whole truth.
In 2004, Chad Pennington played with a torn rotator cuff, but the Jets called it a "strain." When the season was over, the Jets fessed up, admitting they fibbed to protect their quarterback. In 2008, Brett Favre played the final month with a torn biceps tendon, but never appeared on the injury report. Months later, the Jets were fined by the league for withholding the information.
No one is suggesting that Sanchez's injury is as serious as those of his predecessors, or that the Jets are being deceptive, but it always bears watching when the franchise quarterback has a sore wing. In this case, it appears to be cartilage damage that may require offseason surgery. He hasn't dismissed that as a possibility.
Once again, Sanchez was limited in practice, although he said he did more throwing than he did last week in the first practice. He said his shoulder is "feeling good. I'll be ready for Saturday." But when asked if his shoulder affects his throws, he was less definitive.
"No, it's not really affecting much," he said. "We're just being smart about it, taking the right routes, giving the right throws and approaching it the same way we have the last couple of weeks."
The running joke around the team is that Sanchez should've hurt his shoulder earlier in the season. Against the Steelers and Bears, two formidable defensive teams, he completed 66 percent and 65 percent of his passes, respectively -- the first time in his career he hit the 60 percent mark in back-to-back games. Not coincidentally, the offense has perked up, too.
Sanchez credited the short-passing approach for his improved accuracy. One opposing GM said the Jets' game plan against the Bears resembled something out of the New England Patriots' playbook -- short dropbacks and quick throws.
"I'm in a good place right now, and I think our offense is in a good place," Sanchez said.
In theory, he should be able to operate that kind of passing attack against the Colts, known for their Cover 2 scheme. Their safeties often are lined up 20 yards from the line of scrimmage, allowing quarterbacks to dink and dunk.
Obviously, the Colts will notice from watching tape that Sanchez isn't stretching the field anymore, and that the Jets are playing on a short field. The question is, will the bend-but-don't-break Colts adjust their strategy, daring Sanchez to beat them deep?
Imagine if it evolves into a shootout, Sanchez versus Peyton Manning. Sanchez said his shoulder would be up for it.
"I better be able to," he said, laughing. "I'll feel good. We're inside. [The shoulder] will be good."