A couple of weeks after the New York Jets almost pulled off a championship season, quarterback Mark Sanchez was back home in Mission Viejo, Calif., listening to sports-talk radio as he tooled around town with his father. What, you were expecting a swimsuit model?
Maybe on another day. This particular afternoon, it was father and son, talking sports. Pretty soon, the guys on the radio were yapping about Sanchez, his meteoric rise as a rookie, how he almost led the Jets to the Super Bowl and how he had become "The Next Big Thing."
Sanchez reached for the "off" button; he couldn't take it anymore. Radio guys were blowing enough smoke to create a cover of smog.
"Man, these guys are talking like I did really well," Sanchez told ESPNNewYork.com months later, recounting what he said to his dad that day in the car. "I mean, yeah, we had a good run at the end of the season, but I'm not even good yet. Just wait. Just wait until I know what I'm doing."
I'm not even good yet.
With those five words, Sanchez said enough to fill multiple chapters in a book, demonstrating maturity (he recognizes he rode the coattails of others) and supreme confidence. Notice he said "yet," suggesting it's only a matter of time before the coattails belong to him.
Is that time now?
While Jets Nation obsesses over Darrelle Revis' contract, the high-profile additions, roster chemistry and out-of-control expectations, the real story is Sanchez. In the quarterback-driven NFL, it usually comes down to the man behind center, and this is no different.
Sanchez salvaged a rocky rookie season with two playoff victories on the road and, in the crucible of the AFC Championship Game, he aged a few years and gave Peyton Manning a good fight, albeit in a 30-17 defeat. If the Jets get that Sanchez in 2010 -- a competent passer, not just a game manager -- they might be able to make coach Rex Ryan's Super Bowl visions a reality.
But there was also the other Sanchez, the careless rookie who threw 20 interceptions, including 18 in a 10-game span that nearly ruined the Jets' season. Things were so difficult that Ryan created a color-coded system to help Sanchez make better decisions, basically an elementary-school technique to aid the $45 million quarterback.
That was then. After an intensive offseason in which he spent more time in the classroom -- partly out of necessity, as he recovered from knee surgery -- Sanchez has a message to those who might be wondering which quarterback they will see this season:
"Do I feel like I'm better than I was last year? Hands down, without a doubt," he said. "I feel so much more comfortable, sharper. It's only going to build. This year's passing attack progresses as the former rookie quarterback progresses. As I grow up, the passing offense grows up and expands."
GM Mike Tannenbaum has assembled a sports-car offense, with new wheels and a sleek chassis. It emerges from the garage Sunday, when the Jets report to training camp in Cortland, N.Y. The question is whether the young driver can handle this much horsepower.
Once Santonio Holmes returns from his four-game suspension, the Jets will have perhaps their best receiving corps ever. The plan is to remain true to their ground-and-pound personality, but they will let Sanchez throw more than last season.
"The only thing I worry about this year is that he feels he needs to do something spectacular to get the naysayers away, the people who said he was carried by the offensive line and running game and defense," guard Brandon Moore said. "That's what I worry about, that he presses too much and puts too much pressure on himself."
It's a valid concern. Sanchez was carried by the rest of the team, which managed to overcome his severe growing pains. The Jets tried to combat that by using a scaled-down, conservative offense that kept him on a short leash. He attempted only 364 passes, the third-lowest total in the past decade among quarterbacks with at least 15 starts. Now there will be pressure on Sanchez to feed his hungry receivers, namely Holmes and Braylon Edwards, a pair of No. 1-caliber wideouts playing for new contracts.
"I would be concerned with some young quarterbacks, but not Mark," said offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, who has the huge job of trying to balance everything. "His magic is his personality. He's going above and beyond to try to develop relationships."
Sanchez hosted nine skill-position players in his hometown recently for an informal passing camp, dubbed "Jets West." (Each player received a "Jets West" T-shirt.) It wasn't all work and no play, as he arranged for his teammates to stay in two-bedroom villas at a posh resort. He treated them to dinners, scored tickets to the ESPYS in downtown Los Angeles and took the group to the Home Run Derby at the MLB All-Star Game in Anaheim. Sanchez paid for a good part of the entire junket, which included cameo appearances by Ryan and Schottenheimer.
Teammates say Sanchez, still only 23 years old, is evolving into a leader by becoming more vocal behind the scenes. He's definitely more visible than last year, making a presentation at the Tony Awards and attending a state dinner at the White House. If you didn't know better, you'd think his entire offseason was "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," but that wasn't the case.
In February, he underwent knee surgery to repair a tendon. Once he was able to get out of bed, he reported to the Jets' training complex for several hours a day. When he wasn't rehabbing his knee, he was studying cut-ups of every play from last season. He looked over pass protections, footwork, hand placement, ball control, cadence and even body language. He was "basically an assistant coach," Ryan said.
The big-picture goal is to improve Sanchez's decision-making and reduce his interceptions. They came in bunches last season, with five multi-interception games -- a "recipe for losing," as Schottenheimer called it. Not surprisingly, the Jets went 0-5 in those games and 9-2 in the others.
So how do they slash the interception total? According to Schottenheimer, Sanchez tended to force passes to his No. 1 read instead of following his progression. In other words, if his No. 1 and No. 2 reads were covered, he'd go back to No. 1 instead of No. 3 -- a no-no in the NFL.
Schottenheimer believes 13 or 14 interceptions could be traced to poor decisions. Sanchez's goal is to stay under 10. Ten? If that happened, Ryan would be giddy enough to kiss Bill Belichick's rings.
Another objective is to improve Sanchez's accuracy. He completed only 54 percent of his attempts, and that was supposed to be one of his strengths coming out of USC.
"He's way too accurate to have the completion percentage he did," Schottenheimer said.
To fix it, Sanchez is working on a quicker getaway from center that will enable him to set up quickly in the pocket, giving him more time and a better look downfield.
The Jets are also trying to solve a "blind spot" in his getaway. He tends to keep his shoulders closed, looking to his right. That hurts his accuracy when he has to throw quickly to his left. On throws to that side, he managed only one touchdown and 13 interceptions, according to STATS LLC.
The X factor is Sanchez's surgically repaired knee. While he looked fine in the controlled environment of minicamp, there's no way of knowing how he will respond to the first hit. Because it's his left knee, it will be exposed to charging pass-rushers and falling bodies in front of him. That could create a psychological hurdle.
Based on history, Sanchez should be able to raise his game once he clears that. Of the 17 current starting quarterbacks who saw significant action in their first or second season, only three experienced major slippage the following year: Brett Favre (Green Bay Packers), Drew Brees (San Diego Chargers) and Matt Leinart (Arizona Cardinals). Most made major strides.
Interestingly, Brees' drop came with Schottenheimer as his position coach, although you might say he has rebounded rather nicely.
Sanchez, not lacking in the confidence department, expects big things from himself. Remember what he said to his father six months ago.
"Just wait until I know what I'm doing, then this will be a team," he said. "This will be a multifaceted offense that will come after you, with a defense that will kick your butt. I'm not even there, but I'm itching to get there."