EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez began the offseason with his left leg in a cast, the result of postseason knee surgery. He ended it Wednesday with a minicamp practice before 12,000 fans at the new Meadowlands stadium, where he made a solo run that showed his adoring public his oft-discussed knee is fine.
Truth be told, it was a penalty lap around the perimeter of the field. The quarterback committed a false start and was told to run. Fighting back a smile, Sanchez took the lap, prompting a huge ovation. It was the second-most famous penalty lap in team history, behind Brett Favre's training-camp moment in the summer of '08 -- an instant sensation on YouTube.
"I've never been cheered for making a mistake like that," Sanchez said, grinning.
It was a light way to punctuate a heavy offseason. Sanchez missed more than two months of field work, but he blew coaches away with his work in the classroom and the weight room.
Rex Ryan raved about Sanchez's work ethic, saying, "No player that I've ever been around worked as hard as Sanchez did in the offseason -- no player."
Reminded of those names, Ryan stuck to his original assessment, reiterating, "[Sanchez] exceeded everybody I've ever been around."
Sanchez's profile increased in the offseason, as he attended a state dinner at the White House, made a presentation at the Tony Awards and landed on the gossip pages with former "Sopranos" star Jamie Lynn Sigler. But, from all indications, the quarterback from Southern California hasn't gone Hollywood.
"Mark is a born leader," Ryan said. "You see our players recognize that fact, that this is their guy."
The Jets were ultraconservative during Sanchez's rehab, not clearing him for full team drills until last week. He was limited to one practice per day during the three-day minicamp, but he wound up with five full practices (counting last week's organized team activities) in a span of eight days. Some rust was evident, especially with his accuracy, but his surgically repaired knee seemed fine.
"These last two weeks really brought me back to speed," Sanchez said. "[The layoff] might have been the best thing for me. It was hard to see that when I'm in a cast and I can't do anything, but mentally that might have been the best grind of football I've ever been around. It was enlightening, inspiring to see how quickly I could pick it up."
Sanchez was alluding to his daily skull sessions with the coaches. During the early stages of his rehab, he spent several hours a day in the classroom breaking down tape. He studied pass protections, footwork, hand placement, ball control, cadence, even body language. He was "basically an assistant coach," Ryan said.
Sanchez is trying to build on his strong finish from last season. After 20 interceptions in his first 13 games, the former USC star improved his decision making and threw only two over the last five, including three postseason games.
The problem is the downtime cost him an opportunity to develop a rapport with new wide receiver Santonio Holmes. He'll never recover those missed reps, but Sanchez has invited the entire receiving corps to his house in Southern California next month for a private passing camp.
Sanchez and the Jets will be counting down the remaining six weeks until training camp.
"I'm ready," Sanchez said. "I'm feeling better than I've ever felt."