Sanchez to confront first NFL critic

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Mark Sanchez is accustomed to criticism. When you play quarterback in New York, it becomes as much a part of your life as food and water and air. On Sunday, for the first time in his pro career, he will confront his very first NFL critic.

His old college coach, Pete Carroll.

Carroll was the first because he didn't wait for Sanchez to throw his first pro interception; he knocked him on the day he announced his decision to leave USC for the NFL. In fact, he did it to his face, with the entire world watching -- an awkward news conference in which Carroll condemned his quarterback for bypassing his senior year.

The old song says it never rains in Southern California, but Carroll rained on Sanchez's parade, spewing a litany of reasons why he felt it was a mistake to turn pro. After saying his piece, Carroll left Sanchez alone at the microphone, taking a seat in the audience. The symbolism was obvious.

It was an unfortunate moment for Carroll, a good guy and a good coach. Luckily for Sanchez, the lack of public support from his coach didn't damage his value, as the New York Jets drafted him fifth overall in 2009.

So here we are, nearly four years later. Sanchez is all grown up and Carroll is the coach of the Seattle Seahawks, whom the Jets meet Sunday in a virtual must-win. Oh, what a delicious subplot: Sanchez is fighting to keep his starting job, facing the man who didn't think he was ready for the NFL pressure cooker in 2009.

We can call it the Bygones Bowl, because Sanchez and Carroll both insisted Wednesday that their relationship never was damaged and remains as strong as ever. Maybe so, but Sanchez is ultra-competitive, and you know this game means something extra for him.

Naturally, he downplayed the story angle.

"There were plenty of doubters and stuff, so I didn't think it was that big of a deal," he said. "It obviously got a lot more media coverage than I thought. ... He was just honest about what he thought."

Sanchez's parents agreed with Carroll; they wanted him to stay in school for another year. It was a gutsy decision by Sanchez, an impressive show of self-confidence -- one of the traits that attracted the Jets.

"Whatever I thought he had to overcome, he left that in the dust, kicked butt and had a great first few years," Carroll said on a conference call with New York media.

Carroll spoke fondly of his former quarterback, praising his mental toughness. Reflecting on their cumbersome split in January 2009, the coach said, "I talked to him like he was my own son." He recalled how they were up until 2 a.m. on the eve of the news conference, eating burgers and chewing on the pros and cons of turning pro.

Carroll insisted he wasn't motivated by self-interest, that he wanted the best for Sanchez. But come on, let's not be naïve: He knew Sanchez gave him a better chance to win a national championship, and winning is everything at places like USC.

"I don't blame Pete Carroll one bit, because if I had that young man as my quarterback, I'd say whatever it took to get the guy to stay with me," Rex Ryan said. "[I'd say,] 'You're not ready, son.' Deep down, he knew he was ready."

Unlike Carroll in '09, Ryan controls Sanchez's fate. He can keep him on the field or bench him. From all indications, he intends to ride with Sanchez, for better or worse.

Ryan fell hard for Sanchez in the spring of '09. The kid lacked experience -- he started only 16 games at USC -- but he won over the quarterback-needy, post-Favre Jets with his leadership and charisma. And oh, yes, his passing skills, too.

It looked like a brilliant move, as Sanchez helped the Jets to back-to-back AFC Championship Games, but the luster has vanished. Sanchez has struggled, and Tim Tebow is in town, and the pressure on Sanchez never has been more pronounced than it is now. His team is 3-5, with the offense reeling.

Carroll was asked if Sanchez is experiencing residual effects from leaving school early, and he correctly squashed that theory.

"All that has been washed out by now," he said. "He's been in the hot seat and they've been through a ton of things together, championship games and all. I think all that washed away."

Ironically, Carroll -- the man so concerned about quarterback experience -- has entrusted his team to a rookie, Russell Wilson, whom he drafted in the third round. He's playing Wilson ahead of Matt Flynn, who was supposed to be the free-agent answer to the Seahawks' quarterback problem.

Carroll sees something special in Wilson, who, based on statistics, is ahead of where Sanchez was as a rookie in '09. Now they all meet Sunday in Seattle -- the coach, his new phenom and his old phenom.

"It's going to be cool. I love playing against our guys," said Carroll, meaning USC alums. "The people I love the most, I like to beat the most."

When that line was repeated to Sanchez, he smiled.

"He used to say that in college," the quarterback said.