FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- The pinnacle for Mark Sanchez was Jan. 16, 2011, when he outplayed Tom Brady in a playoff game and threw one of the most memorable touchdown passes in New York Jets history -- a 7-yard rainbow to a diving Santonio Holmes in the back corner of the end zone. It came in the crucible of the fourth quarter, and it was perfect. It was like tossing a BB into a shot glass from 15 paces.
Sanchez was 24 years old that day, already with more postseason victories on his résumé than Joe Namath. He was handsome, charismatic and a gossip-page mainstay known for entertaining Hollywood starlets and supermodels at his bachelor's crib, located on a Donald Trump golf course amid the horse farms and blue-blood estates near the Jets' training facility.
Now, six years later, the Sanchize is disenfranchised.
Not surprisingly (yet surprisingly), Sanchez was fired by the Denver Broncos, his third team. He was traded to the Super Bowl champions in the offseason and became the immediate favorite to succeed Peyton Manning, but he was beat out by a former seventh-round pick whose NFL experience consists of one kneel-down -- Trevor Siemian -- and rookie Paxton Lynch.
Sanchez was unemployed for a New York minute -- he reportedly will sign with the Dallas Cowboys -- but he has descended to journeyman status. In Dallas, he will back up another rookie, Dak Prescott. How did he fall this far?
Many, of course, will point to the infamous Butt Fumble, an infamous gaffe against the Patriots in November 2012, as the turning point, but that's not when it started to unravel. The blooper will be part of his legacy, but the real story is that he was sabotaged by two things: an organization that undermined him with bad decisions and his own inability to control his killer mistakes.
Sanchez's decline actually began in 2011, when the Jets decided to remove the young quarterback from bubble wrap. For two years, they coached around him, hiding him behind an outstanding offensive line and letting the league's best defense carry the team. It worked -- two straight trips to the AFC Championship Game -- but they felt it was time to make him the focal point.
It was the right call, but they released his favorite receiver (Jerricho Cotchery) and brought in a couple of aging divas, Plaxico Burress and Derrick Mason. They joined the perennial malcontent of Holmes, who challenged Sanchez's authority in meetings and became a pain in the rear for everybody in the organization. Ironically, they shared that one great moment in New England, but there was no chemistry between them, only tension.
Sanchez tried to make it right by visiting Holmes at his offseason home in Orlando, Florida, but the relationship was beyond repair. The Jets couldn't cut Holmes because they owed him too much money, so they threw their support behind Sanchez, rewarding him with a lucrative contract extension after a middling year. It certainly raised eyebrows in the locker room and around the league, but it was nothing compared to what happened a week later.
They traded for Tim Tebow, creating a yearlong circus atmosphere that sucked the energy out of the organization. Sanchez never felt threatened by Tebow, who couldn't throw straight, but his presence was a constant distraction that ruined team chemistry. Sanchez was terrible in 2012, eventually getting benched after a four-interception game in Tennessee. He got the news after the game, in the locker room. He fought back tears, crushed that the job he loved no longer belonged to him.
The Jets brought him back in 2013, making him compete with rookie Geno Smith, but he never made it to the regular season. Coach Rex Ryan made a decision that will live in infamy, inserting Sanchez in the fourth quarter of the third preseason game, behind a bunch of scrubs on the offensive line. Ryan tempted the football gods, who had been tormenting the Jets for nearly a half-century. Bad move.
Sanchez got drilled by an unblocked defensive lineman, wrecking his throwing shoulder. Afterward, his mild-mannered father, a retired fireman, fumed outside the locker room, wondering why the coach had used his son in garbage time. Surgery was required, ending his season. He was released the following year and landed quickly with Chip Kelly's Philadelphia Eagles, which seemed like an ideal place to start over.
He was brilliant in his first start and celebrated by eating cheese steaks at two of Philly's famous joints, endearing himself to the locals. The vibe quickly faded, as he reverted to his turnover-prone ways, getting only nine more starts over the next two years.
Sanchez's career stat line is damning: 84 interceptions in 75 games.
When the Eagles went quarterback-crazy in the offseason, they shipped Sanchez to the Broncos for a conditional seventh-round pick.
Sanchez was drafted fifth overall in 2009, a time when the Jets were desperate to replace Brett Favre, who was one-and-done in New York. They fell in love with Sanchez at a private workout at his high school in Mission Viejo, California, blown away that so many of his former receivers showed up that day, eager to run routes for him. The Jets read that as a sign of respect. Leadership. The "It" factor. The workout? It was nearly flawless.
He endured plenty of early growing pains with the Jets, but he was a winner and a star, from Southern Cal to Broadway. He was going to be the next Namath. He outplayed Manning and Brady in back-to-back playoff weeks.
Now he loses to Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch.