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The Evolution of Mark Sanchez

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- There is more to Mark Sanchez than the white pants and black tank top he wore for the GQ magazine spread. He has a Broadway side to him, there is no doubt, but entering his third year as the New York Jets' starting quarterback, he has something more: leadership.

It was a word used frequently on Thursday to describe the 24-year-old quarterback, who enters his third season shouldering the responsibility for making his coach's second blustery promise of a Super Bowl win a reality. For as creative a coach as Rex Ryan is, for as dominating a defense as the Jets have, the only way New York gets to the Super Bowl and wins it is if Sanchez can make another monster step in his progression.

Sanchez knows it. The Jets' players know it. And Ryan knows it, too.

That is part of the reason Ryan named Sanchez one of the team's captains. It was not merely a symbolic move. Sanchez earned the honor last season and this disjointed offseason.

Sanchez endured a two-game slump last year that almost got him benched, then stood up to his coach and demanded the team remain his. He rebounded the next week against Pittsburgh by playing through a shoulder injury and turned in one of his most accurate performances of the season. A couple weeks later, in an AFC wild-card game against Indianapolis, Sanchez shook off a poor first-half performance in which he misfired on 10 of 19 passes and threw an interception, then led the team to a 17-16 victory. The next week against New England, Sanchez threw three touchdowns and no interceptions to help the Jets advance to the AFC title game.

It was Sanchez's fourth road playoff win in two years. The next week, he lost his second AFC title game.

During the lockout, Sanchez held a pseudo minicamp in California that was as organized and well-attended as any player effort in the league. He made playbooks, held film sessions and provided food and trainers.

When the Jets finally convened for training camp, Ryan quickly named Sanchez a captain, and he has been rewarded for that decision in subtle but not insignificant ways.

After the Jets flew home from their first preseason game against Houston Monday night, Ryan gave the players the option to work out Tuesday. The team had arrived at the practice facility at 5:30 a.m. Most players opted to go home to sleep, as did Ryan. But Sanchez, along with Santonio Holmes and Greg McElroy, opted to run shuttles and lift weights.

"I think he's grown," Ryan said. "I don't think there's any doubt."

At the team's walk-through Thursday morning, Sanchez pulled his main weapons and backup quarterbacks off to a side field with quarterbacks coach Matt Cavanaugh. He reviewed audibles and coverages and what to do when a defense shows Cover 2 or a blitz. Holmes, Derrick Mason, Plaxico Burress, Dustin Keller, LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene hung on every word.

At one point, Ryan walked over, watched and smiled.

"This is his offense," Ryan said. "These guys look at him. If there's any hesitation, [Sanchez says] 'You have this, you have that.' It's impressive to watch, it really is."

The Jets and their hungry fans certainly hope Sanchez can translate increased leadership into increased wins. There is no guarantee. Sanchez has been working to improve his accuracy, which after two years sits at 54.4 percent, about 10 points lower than where Ryan ultimately would like it. He cut down his interceptions from 20 in 2009 to 13 last season, and he knows this season he needs to get the Jets into the end zone more and not settle for as many field goals.

Although there are questions of depth along New York's offensive line, Sanchez has plenty of toys. Keller led all Jets receivers last season with 55 catches, and Holmes pulled in 52. If he can regain his pre-prison form, Burress should provide Sanchez a big target in the end zone. Mason is a entering his 15th NFL season and has experience helping break in young quarterbacks.

Mason was a rookie with Tennessee in 1997, when Steve McNair became the Titans' starter, and he was in Baltimore for Joe Flacco's first three seasons with the Ravens. He understands the growing pains involved.

"I think what has to happen is you've got to be willing to be coached," Mason said. "You have to be a student of the game first and foremost, and from what I've seen of Mark, he is. He's eager to learn. He's always picking somebody's brain for information, always talking to the offensive coordinator, talking to the wideouts, the tight ends. And then it is just having trust in your guys, I think that's what speeds up the process for young quarterbacks. If they don't have confidence in their guys out there, then they're going to be hesitant to throw the ball, but once they have confidence in the guys, you'll see them start to grow a lot quicker.

"It happened with Joe. He had a lot of confidence in the guys he was throwing it to. His progressions became a little bit faster. I see that with Mark. I think that curve is going to be a little bit faster for him because he has gained a lot of confidence, and you'll see him start to mature on the field."

Sanchez is maturing off of it. Asked Thursday whether he is in the elite class of quarterbacks, Sanchez wisely said what Eli Manning had not two days earlier: "I think that's for other people to debate."

"I know my skill set, and I know I'm getting better," Sanchez added. "Once we win a Super Bowl, then maybe I'll have an opinion on that. But until then, we're just trying to win games."

Sanchez acknowledged that being a leader comes naturally to him, but he said last season he did not have enough clout to be the true leader of the Jets. After playoff wins over Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, this season he does.

"I think I was getting there, but you need to at least establish yourself on the team first," Sanchez said. "I think when the team saw how I reacted to almost getting benched, how I reacted to a shoulder injury, it's just not in my nature to kind of bow out from something like that. I'm not going down without trying to play, and they saw that. They saw my energy and my fire. They saw me elevate my play in the playoffs. That helps you establish yourself on this team, and that's the most important thing."

The rest, like the numbers and Pro Bowls, Ryan said, will come. Sanchez has taken major steps in his progression. He is about to take another.

"He wins big games, and he's a winner," Ryan said. "That's all I want him to do, just win."

Ashley Fox covers the NFL for ESPN.com.