It's still early in Mark Sanchez's career, as Vikings quarterback Brett Favre stressed Thursday, even as he was complimenting the second-year quarterback the Jets drafted to replace him as their starter in 2009. That happened after Favre privately told the team -- stop me if you've heard this before -- he was undecided whether he wanted to play anymore.
But Favre, who sometimes makes fun of his indecisiveness, should beware of more than just the Jets' bruising defense or how to work in newly acquired Randy Moss (who was sent from the New England Patriots to the Vikings on Tuesday) when he returns to East Rutherford, N.J., on Monday to play the Jets.
Although it's hardly gotten much notice, Sanchez has been slowly building a reputation for collecting victories against big-time quarterbacks like Favre, dating back to Sanchez's head-to-head matchups against them in his rookie season.
Already, the Jets and Sanchez are 2-1 for his career when he's gone against Tom Brady, 1-0 against San Diego's Philip Rivers and 2-0 against Cincinnati's Carson Palmer. Sanchez is 0-1 against reigning Super Bowl MVP Drew Brees but 1-1 against Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning, albeit with this huge asterisk: The undefeated Colts pulled Manning in the second half last season before the Jets roared back to win, thanks to a late turnover by Manning's painfully green replacement, Curtis Painter.
That's a pretty good portfolio for a young quarterback like Sanchez, who began this season as a feared weak link on a Jets team that's built to win right now.
Favre, who turns 41 on Sunday, almost surely didn't know Sanchez's 6-3 win-loss record against marquee quarterbacks as the 20-year veteran spoke on a conference call Thursday about his one-and-done season with the Jets in 2008. Favre told a story about a postseason conversation he had with Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum and team owner Woody Johnson before the '09 draft, and how what was said that day contributed to the Jets' already strong determination to move up in the draft to get Sanchez.
Favre was facing surgery for a torn biceps, he reminded everyone, and back then he was undecided -- there's that word again -- whether he wanted to go through the surgery he needed to play again. The Jets granted Favre's request for an outright release. He eventually moved on to the Vikings, the place he preferred to be all along.
Both clubs -- the Jets team Favre left and the Vikings team he energized -- roared all the way to their conference championship games before losing there.
"It's worked out favorably for them," Favre said, noting that because of his age the Jets were going to be in the process of grooming another quarterback whether he returned to New York or not.
What Favre didn't say was that he'd already seen that "grooming" movie before, in Green Bay. And he presumably had no interest in living it again. The Packers ran off Favre to make room for young Aaron Rodgers. So why go through something similar again, this time in New York?
"I was thinking we wanted to draft Mark Sanchez some way, somehow," Jets coach Rex Ryan confirmed Thursday, even though Ryan reiterated he would have welcomed back Favre.
After avoiding nearly all of training camp with Minnesota again, Favre hasn't played nearly as well for the Vikings as he did last season. Interceptions have been a problem for him, which is hardly new. He misses injured wideout Sidney Rice, although Moss' arrival should help that.
If there's such a thing as a good time to catch the Vikings, the time is definitely now, before Rice comes back, before Favre and Moss get their timing down, before Favre can just sit back in the pocket and choose among them and his other dangerous options like Percy Harvin and Adrian Peterson.
The Vikings' offense -- shaky as it looks now -- could be a juggernaut again by Week 8 or 10 or 12.
But Sanchez only has to hold his own against Favre this week. Perhaps Sanchez's best 2010 stat is that he has yet to throw an interception -- another thing that separates him from Favre, besides the Jets' 3-1 record versus the Vikings' 1-2 start. Overall, Sanchez is now 8-2 in his past 10 starts dating back to last season.
"Of course, part of Mark's record has something to do with the fact we have a pretty good defense," Sanchez's backup, Mark Brunell, said with a laugh.
But Jets wide receiver Braylon Edwards says he's not surprised Sanchez has played winning football against other star quarterbacks, pointing out, "He's a big-game guy. He went to USC, where he played in plenty of games on a big stage. When you think of USC, you think of the Heisman Trophy, Reggie Bush, national championship games -- those kind of things. So this is nothing new for him."
Jets guard Damien Woody says he never notices a change week to week in Sanchez, no matter who the opposing quarterback is. Nor does Woody look at Monday's game as a chance to stick it to Favre for asking out or the way Favre struggled and the Jets nosedived late in the '08 season after an 8-3 start.
Woody sat by his locker for a long time Thursday, insisting Favre was a good teammate and a lot of fun to play with when he was a Jet, contrary to a lot of the chatter since Favre left.
Woody also said he never looked at Favre and wondered why was he playing if his throwing arm was injured.
Favre did volunteer Thursday, "Maybe I pushed things too much."
But Woody just said: "Except for the end of the season, those were good times. I have nothing but good memories of him. He brought a lot of energy to the building. He was a prankster, a lot of fun to play with. And watching film with him, man, he was just so smart. But now he's moved on; we've moved on. And it's worked out for everybody."
"The Jets are playing as well as anybody in the league, and that's not just blowing smoke," Favre said.
If the Jets and Favre had a chance to do it over, you get the feeling none of them would change a thing.