Jets hopes rise, fall with Mark Sanchez

The New York Jets probably go only as far as Mark Sanchez will guide them. Al Pereira/Getty Images

The New York Jets have a most enviable infrastructure.

They possess a stellar defense that ranked first in fewest points and yards allowed in 2009. They have an elite offensive line, a rising prospect and future Hall of Famer in their backfield, and a collection of 1,000-yard receivers.

Yet they'll probably go only as far as their unproven quarterback will guide them.

The Jets claim they have faith in Mark Sanchez.

They have to say that. They have little choice.

Jets hype has been building for seven months, and they'll finally have to back up the bravado Monday night, when they open their season against the Baltimore Ravens at New Meadowlands Stadium (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET).

Sanchez, for better or worse, holds the Jets' hopes in his hands. Skeptics believe he will handle that responsibility like he did a football last year -- fumble it or throw it away.

Given all of the bold roster moves they've made and all the money they've spent, the Jets are banking on Sanchez to come through. After all, he survived a highly unstable rookie season and played well enough in the winter to get the Jets into the AFC Championship Game.

"I have a lot of faith in Mark," Jets head coach Rex Ryan said. But that's the type of thing he says publicly about a lot of his players. Ryan spent much of last summer talking up pass-rusher Vernon Gholston like he was on the verge of a breakthrough. Gholston still hasn't registered an NFL sack.

"I think if you look at it, the bigger the game, the better he played last year," Ryan added about Sanchez. "In the AFC Championship Game, he played pretty well I think."

But the Ravens recognize Sanchez as a weakness. Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis acknowledged on a conference call the game plan will be to shut down Jets running backs Shonn Greene and LaDainian Tomlinson and let Sanchez try to beat them.

"We don't even have to guess," Lewis said. "All we have to do is look at the film. He struggles a lot when he has to throw the ball a lot. That's just not his forte. It's not their team's thing.

"You have to grasp the team concept. If you don't grasp their team concept and worry about Sanchez trying to grow, then they beat you by simply running the ball."

In games when Sanchez had at least 24 pass attempts, the Jets were 2-7, counting the postseason.

Sanchez threw 20 interceptions last season. That tied for second despite throwing nearly 200 fewer times than Jay Cutler, who recorded 26 interceptions.

Sanchez had three games with four or more turnovers. He had a five-interception game in a Week 6 loss to the Buffalo Bills. He had four interceptions and lost a fumble in a Week 11 loss to the New England Patriots.

He was so unreliable, Ryan came up with the idea to color-code the plays on Sanchez's wristband. Ryan, who has dyslexia, had been color-coding his files for years to help him stay organized. A green play on the wristband gave Sanchez permission to take a chance. Yellow was caution. Red was a stern warning not to be stupid.

Unhappy with Sanchez's refusal to slide feet-first to avoid unnecessary contact, the Jets had New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi spend a day teaching him how to do it. In the next game, Sanchez dived for a first down and hurt his knee.

But Sanchez showed signs of maturity in December and January. He learned to play a more conservative game and limited mistakes. In the Jets' final two regular-season games and their three playoff games, he committed two turnovers.

"I'm thrilled about the growth I've had," Sanchez said. "All that game experience has really helped in these situations, in practice and with situations that will come up this year. Hopefully, I'm better and more prepared. There's still a long way to go."

The Jets have given him all the tools a quarterback should need. Already at his disposal were receivers Braylon Edwards and Jerricho Cotchery and tight end Dustin Keller.

They acquired receiver Santonio Holmes (out the first four games with a suspension) and Tomlinson to give Sanchez a target out of the backfield they didn't have down the homestretch last year.

"I think he did have a typical rookie season last year," Ryan said. "He played great some games and not as good in some other ones. We think that's going to level out.

"We think he is going to play consistently this year. I think you're going to see a few more highs, but you're not going to see the lows he had last year. I think the five-interception days are behind him, way behind him. I would expect big things from Mark."