Forget Revis, Mark Sanchez is the key

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Darrelle Revis is headline news, whether he is signing a contract or tweaking a hamstring. Revis is likely the greatest player the Jets have dressed. In fact, he is already better at his position than Joe Namath ever was at his.

But in the context of reaching the Jets' oft-stated goal of winning the Super Bowl, a cornerback's left leg will never be as significant as a quarterback's right arm.

Mark Sanchez will make or break this make-or-break season, and for a Jets fan that is a most alarming thought. You want your best player at the most important position, and Sanchez doesn't make the Jets' top three.

Tom Brady? Yeah, he's the Patriots' best player, the principal reason Bill Belichick has three rings Rex Ryan refuses to kiss. This presents a problem for Sunday's home team, which has promised its beleaguered fan base the moon, the stars, and Belichick's headset on a silver platter.

In a league of Bradys, Mannings and Breeses, Sanchez might not be good enough to win a championship. The NFL is a quarterback-driven league, and the Jets aren't anyone's idea of a quarterback-driven team.

One game deep into a 16-game season, Sanchez stands 32nd out of 33 quarterbacks in passing yards. It's never a good sign when your quarterback ranks behind one Detroit Lion; today Sanchez ranks behind two Detroit Lions.

Ryan and Brian Schottenheimer wrapped a protective cocoon around their sophomore, then lost the Monday night opener to the Ravens because of it. Sanchez was playing prevent offense out there, making a sage out of Ray Lewis, who said the Jets were afraid to have Sanchez throw the ball.

The Jets can't afford to be afraid against New England. Desperate? Yes, the Jets are allowed to be desperate. They can't expect to win it all after an 0-2 start, even if their co-tenants, the Giants, did it three seasons ago.

Toward that end, Revis' proven ability to make Randy Moss smaller than a referee's whistle is a critical asset. The cornerback turned up with tightness in his left hamstring in Thursday's practice, a predictable post-holdout development. And if Ryan has to slap Antonio Cromartie on Moss and Kyle Wilson on Wes Welker, New England will score more points on the Jets than the Miami Heat will score on the Nets.

Revis said he played with a tight hamstring in college, and played up to his standards, and that he expects to do the same against the Pats. Fine. Let's assume the hamstring will be healthy enough to go, giving Sanchez his one clear edge over Brady: He doesn't have to throw against Revis.

But Brady is too good at his job to let Revis' presence ruin his day at the office, meaning Sanchez will have to show up a much better football player than he was against Baltimore, a much better football player than the rookie who finished the 2009 regular season with 20 interceptions against 12 touchdowns.

"We're ready to have a breakout game," Sanchez said.

The Jets need him to have a breakout season.

"I think he has a lot of upside," LaDainian Tomlinson said. "He's very athletic, he can make all the throws, he has command of the pocket, and his teammates enjoy being around him. All those things are great characteristics of being a very good quarterback in this league."

Chances are, Sanchez will never rise to the level of a Brady or a Peyton or a Brees. But if the Jets were right when they moved up to draft him, Sanchez will rise to the level of a Roethlisberger or an Eli or a McNabb or a Rivers.

The former Charger, Tomlinson, was asked if Sanchez could end up as a quarterback the equal of Philip Rivers. "Oh yeah, absolutely," he said, before moving to temper the expectation.

"People have got to remember, Philip Rivers sat for two years behind Drew Brees before he even touched the field," Tomlinson continued. "Mark Sanchez came in and played as a rookie, started right away after one year of [starting in] college. So you've just got to let him grow into what he's going to become. But I think he could become a really good quarterback in this league."

Only the Jets need that to happen sooner rather than later. They were built to win the Super Bowl in February, 42 years after their first and only title. The Jets need Sanchez to grow up. They need him to make that transition from boy to man between now and Sunday.

The quarterback has to expand his game, improve his body language when things go south, even lead a fourth-quarter comeback or two.

"When Sanchez gets going and things are going well," said ESPN's Tedy Bruschi, the former Patriots linebacker, "I think he's a great quarterback, his attitude is infectious, he's a leader of that team. But when things go bad I think he tanks it."

Tanks it. You want your quarterback doing a lot of things for your team, but tanking it isn't among them.

"Right now," Bruschi said, "I see Mark Sanchez as a front-runner …."

Right now, I see that frontrunner as the Jets' most important figure, with Revis running a distant second. In a quiet moment in January, when the cornerback was talking about the prospect of winning multiple championships during his career, he stopped himself and said, "You know what? That starts with Mark Sanchez."

Revis can go down as the greatest Jet of all, but he knows this isn't a cornerback-driven league. The AFC East won't be decided by Revis' work on Moss.

It will come down to whether Sanchez plays like a slouch.

Ian O'Connor is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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