Sanchez's comeback is Mark of maturity

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Mark Sanchez gets razzed -- and fined -- by teammates for occasional displays of poor body language. It's part of his education as an NFL quarterback: learning to control his emotions.

On Sunday, there was no mistaking Sanchez's body language late in the third quarter, when he injured his right calf and limped off the field. He resembled a gimpy Brett Favre, and there was initial concern on the sideline that he might not return.

What happened next might turn out to be one of the seminal moments in Sanchez's career. He played hurt for 30 minutes and led the New York Jets to another "How'd they do that?" victory, this time stunning the Cleveland Browns in overtime.

That is a huge step in the growth of a young quarterback, showing your teammates that you can pull out a win when you're banged-up. That Sanchez did it by making plays on the run, improvising outside the pocket, magnified the accomplishment.

Players notice stuff like that.

"You gain a lot of respect in the locker room, especially from the vets," said Jerricho Cotchery, he of the now-famous Hop, Dive & Catch. "They want to see you battle through something. To see him fighting and battling injuries, and still lead us to victory, you earn a lot of respect. People believe in you, and I think everyone in here believes in Mark."

Statistically, Sanchez ranks in the bottom third of the league in most of the major categories, but fans and media types tend to be too preoccupied with quarterback numbers. The most important stat is winning percentage and how the quarterback fares when it's winning time.

Post-calf injury, Sanchez completed 14 of 21 passes for 170 yards, including the 37-yard winner to Santonio Holmes. The previous week, in Detroit, he was 10-for-13 for 144 yards on the final three possessions (two in the fourth quarter, one in overtime). What made that more impressive was that he had seven straight incompletions before the comeback.

Sanchez knows "go time" -- and no, that's not a reference to the organization's marketing slogan for selling tickets.

"[Quarterback] is the one position to me on the football field that is based on wins and losses," Jets coach Rex Ryan said. "Right now, I'd say he's pretty darn good."

Sanchez, whose career record is 15-9, is revealing new facets of his game each week. Consider the past three wins:

• In Denver, he delivered the first late fourth-quarter comeback win of his career, college included.

• In Detroit, he thrived in the two-minute offense, so much so that offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer let Sanchez run a handful of no-huddle, up-tempo plays against the Browns.

• In Cleveland, he proved he can play hurt and play well, especially when it was time to ad lib. When passing from outside the pocket, Sanchez was 5-for-8 for 72 yards, including a 25-yard scoring pass to Cotchery. On a couple of plays, he resembled a modern-day Fran Tarkenton, escaping, dodging and chucking.

"It's like when you look back at the time we played childhood football," Holmes said. "You get 'Five Mississippi,' and it's time to move. He's learning that aspect."

Sanchez thrives in fast-paced, chaotic situations, when his instincts take over and there's less time to think. That explains his efficiency in the two-minute offense. The irony is that a year ago, he was so lost that the coaches made him operate from a color-coded wristband to simplify his decision-making.

In less than a year, he has gone from paint-by-numbers to abstract painting.

"I think it's that pocket presence; most of the great quarterbacks have that," said Ryan, explaining Sanchez's ability to elude the rush and create. "It's almost like they've got eyes in the back of their head."

There's a schoolyard element to it, the willingness to play with reckless abandon, if necessary. Sanchez has that, and he displayed that toughness to his teammates. The person who knows him best wasn't surprised.

"I don't know how good he is," Nick Sanchez, Mark's father, said outside the Jets' locker room Sunday in Cleveland. "But he'll never quit."

Rich Cimini covers the Jets for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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