Jets putting their trust in Mark Sanchez

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Same head coach. Same coordinators. Eighteen returning starters.

And, of course, same swagger.

The 2011 New York Jets are a lot like last season's version, which isn't a bad thing, but there has to be something different about this team -- something better -- or else they will fall short again of the Super Bowl.

That "something," according to players and coaches, is Mark Sanchez -- specifically, his command of the offense.

It hasn't been advertised, but the coaching staff quietly has given the third-year quarterback more freedom to change plays at the line of scrimmage. Sanchez has come a long way from the color-coded wrist band, circa December 2009.

"He's becoming more of a Peyton Manning-type," guard Matt Slauson said. "We get up to the line and he has the ability and know-how to just change everything. ... He's going to be a totally different player this year."

When he faces the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday night at MetLife Stadium, Sanchez will be able to read the defense and make adjustments, if necessary. It will be a dramatic departure from last year's opener against the Baltimore Ravens. In that mess of a game, he was a Stepford Jet, brainwashed by the coaches into following their conservative script.

Look out for the new Sanchez.

"He's calling plays in the huddle by himself," said wide receiver Santonio Holmes, taking it one step further.

Make no mistake, Brian Schottenheimer still is calling the plays, but his confidence in Sanchez has grown immeasurably. It's part of the natural evolution between coordinator and quarterback. This is their third year together, and Schottenheimer recognizes it's time to give more slack.

In Mark, they trust.

When the lockout ended in July, Rex Ryan made an automated, public-relations phone call to season ticket holders, and in it he promised the offense would "air it out" more than last season. And that was before they acquired wide receivers Plaxico Burress and Derrick Mason.

Well, here's their chance to back up that statement. The Cowboys are hurting at cornerback, with Terence Newman (groin) out and Mike Jenkins (neck/knee) a serious question mark. Even if Jenkins plays, he'll be an inviting target because he didn't play a single snap in the preseason.

The Jets also should be able to capitalize on the Cowboys' inexperience in Rob Ryan's defense. Rex's twin brother is the new defensive sheriff in Big D, but he got off to a late start because of the lockout, which wiped out his ability to install his system in the offseason.

As a result, Rob Ryan will have to maintain a delicate balance. Naturally, he'd like to break out some exotic packages to confuse Sanchez, but he also doesn't want to overwhelm his own players with too much information.

"I don't feel bad about that at all," said Rex, alluding to his brother's situation.

The Jets should be able to win the chess match, especially with Sanchez having the flexibility to audible. They've always employed a "check with me" system -- two or three specific plays to choose from at the line -- but now he can go off the script.

That came up Thursday in practice, when Sanchez ditched Schottenheimer's call and changed to his own play. Afterward, Schottenheimer asked for explanation, according to players. Sanchez provided a detailed account of why he called the audible, they said.

Good job, Schottenheimer told him, that was the perfect check.

This is what the Jets are going to be about in 2011. This is their third year in Ryan's program, so they have chemistry and continuity. In a sense, they're all grown up. They're one of only nine teams with the same head coach, offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator and quarterback as last season, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

And that should be huge in the post-lockout world.

True, they shook up the receiving corps, and there will be growing pains, but Burress and Mason have seen everything in their long careers. That will speed up the learning curve.

Defensively, the Jets have rare continuity. In fact, 18 of their top 19 players -- all of whom have game-day roles -- have at least one year in the Ryan/Mike Pettine system.

"That's a big advantage for us, especially early in the year," Pettine said.

It should prove beneficial against the Cowboys, who changed three-fifths of their offensive line. They're starting two rookies, left guard Bill Nagy and right tackle Tyron Smith (questionable with a knee injury), and an untested center, Phil Costa. The Cowboys still have formidable talent at the skill positions, but they will struggle until the line catches up.

One look at the Jets' funky blitzes, and the Dallas neophytes up front might be hypnotized. If Smith can't play, he'll be replaced by Jeremy Parnell, a former Ole Miss basketball player who has no regular-season experience.

Ryan joked that if the Cowboys still had Rayfield Wright on their line it wouldn't matter because the Jets do what they do and wouldn't have to change. He meant on defense. On offense, they can make changes on the fly, thanks to Sanchez's growth.

Which leads us back to the original question: What's going to be different about this team compared to last year?

Slauson paused for a moment, looked across the locker room and pointed to Sanchez's locker.

"I think it's all about No. 6, the way he has progressed," he said. "We're pretty much putting it on him to make all the adjustments. His grasp of the plays and the structure of the scheme is incredible right now."