Schottenheimer sees a QB transformed

Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, right, has seen a change in quarterback Mark Sanchez in recent weeks. Kirby Lee/US Presswire

The revelatory moment for New York Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer left him dumbfounded for a moment.

It was in the second half of the team's Week 16 road game against the Indianapolis Colts. Schottenheimer was trying to navigate his rookie quarterback to a desperately needed victory and keep the Jets' playoff hopes beating.

Mark Sanchez was playing decently. Schottenheimer pounded the run, but Sanchez managed to complete nine straight passes and 10 of 11 from the first quarter into the third. Then Sanchez misfired on four consecutive throws. He skulked off the field for a punt.

"He came over to the sideline and said something to me he's never said to me before," Schottenheimer told me Sunday. "He said 'Hey, how about giving me something easy so I can get a completion and get back on a streak?'

"And I thought, 'Wow.' I just stopped. It kind of floored me. I was, like, 'Absolutely!'"

Sanchez, by Jove, had gotten it. Schottenheimer interpreted the quick exchange as an indicator Sanchez finally had absorbed the team concept and no longer was hell bent on trying to win the game on every play.

"I've seen a transformation," Schottenheimer said.

Sanchez has been a different quarterback the past few weeks. The Jets seemingly were doomed less than a month ago because of his reckless play, but he gathered himself. The Jets won their last two regular-season games to slip into the playoffs.

On Saturday, they eliminated the Cincinnati Bengals 24-14. Sanchez completed 12 of 15 attempts for 182 yards and one touchdown with no interceptions. The Jets will play the San Diego Chargers on Sunday in Qualcomm Stadium.

"The light did kind of come on," said Schottenheimer, whose play calling has been virtuosic. "That takes all of us awhile to realize I'm a part of the process and not the only thing involved."

How do you get through to a hotshot rookie who experienced greatness at USC, won his first three NFL games and was asked to send his cleats to the Pro Football Hall of Fame while still only 22 years old?

"A lot of things came fast and easy to the guy," Schottenheimer said. "He had to get knocked down a little bit."

The Jets almost wasted a team that was great in critical areas: the No. 1 rushing offense, three Pro Bowlers on their offensive line, the No. 1 defense and perhaps the NFL's best lockdown cornerback.

Their quarterback nearly kept them out of the playoffs with bad decisions and interceptions. Checking down, even to a Pro Bowl running back like Thomas Jones, appeared beneath him.

Different forms of the word "regress" and the phrase "rookie wall" were used with Sanchez, but Schottenheimer disputes those notions. Schottenheimer conceded most of the problems were Sanchez-inflicted.

"The issue with Mark was he was making the same mistakes repeatedly," Schottenheimer said. "There's two types of interceptions. There's bad throws and there are bad decisions. Bad-throw interceptions happen. Bad-decision interceptions shouldn't happen, and he kept committing turnovers based on bad decisions.

"It was a maturity thing. He kept thinking he had to make a play, and that's rarely the case."

But a metamorphosis occurred.

The genesis actually came in Week 14 at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a game Sanchez didn't even travel to. The previous game against the Buffalo Bills in Toronto, he hurt his knee on a head-first dive three days after New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi taught him how to slide properly.

Sanchez was forced to watch Kellen Clemens guide the Jets' offense to victory.

"Being out of that Tampa game really bothered him," Schottenheimer said.

Sanchez pressed a bit when he returned in Week 15 against the Atlanta Falcons. He threw three interceptions, but the Jets still should have won. The field goal unit missed three attempts, and the defense gave up a fourth-and-goal touchdown in the waning moments to lose by three points.

After the Falcons defeat, Schottenheimer and Sanchez sat down for a heart-to-heart talk about where they should go from there. Schottenheimer let his quarterback do all of the talking and was impressed with his budding comprehension.

Then came the Indianapolis epiphany.

"We've always known how good he is and that it wasn't going to be too big for him," Schottenheimer said. "We just had to be patient to get through the growing pains."