In Defense of Mark Sanchez

It’s time someone comes to Mark Sanchez’s defense. Unfortunately for him, that person is going to be me. I’m not the most experienced sportswriter out there, and I’m not the one who knows the most about football, I don’t have the biggest platform, and I’m probably not the most eloquent or the smartest.

But I am a Jets fan. I’m a Jets fan who is young enough to only vaguely remember the Kotite years but still old enough to remember them. Sundays were an unhappy time then.

Since the Kotite years – which Jets fans way older than myself assure me were a franchise low – Sundays have been a lot better for Gang Green, no matter how bad things feel.

Since Rex Ryan became head coach, things have blow up around the Jets in a way I’ve never seen before. It’s the kind of bandwagon that will derail at the slightest sign of trouble because it’s so big and so loud. While it hasn’t disappeared yet, one season of missing the playoffs could kill the bandwagon. This season could be that season.

But with all the hype surrounding the Jets these last three years, partly due to Ryan’s culture and partly due to what the Jets have accomplished, this rough patch has led to some really tough reviews of Mark Sanchez. It’s been quieted a bit because the Jets have won against Miami, even if it was ugly, and then against a decent Chargers team, but still, he’s taken some shots from just about everyone.

[caption id="attachment_246" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Mark Sanchez (6) directs the Jets offense. photo credit unknown."][/caption]

He’s been criticized by everyone from Bill Parcells to Santonio Holmes, and was torn apart last week in a column at by Ian O’Connor, which called him a pretty boy and implied all he’s done since he got here is model and play poorly. Yes, the Jets are doomed because Sanchez hasn’t morphed into Tom Brady. Jeez, he may not even be as good as Eli Manning. The Jets clearly have a huge, black hole of a problem at quarterback.

Except that they don’t. People seem to forget that Sanchez is 24. The Jets have attracted a lot of attention the last two and a half years, so it feels like he’s been around a long time, but he hasn’t. He was drafted in 2009 out of USC. He was 22 years old. As a rookie and as a sophomore he took his team to the AFC championship game.

The bar is high because the Jets have been good – because he’s been pretty good under pressure from the very beginning.

But this year, the team’s a little different. The running game, which showed up against the Chargers, has largely been absent, meaning Sanchez wasn’t able to build off his play fakes – something he’s done really well. Jets fans are apparently doomed to watch offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer call his completely average game plans for all eternity. The offensive line fell apart without Nick Mangold and is only now hitting its stride (and looking like they play football professionally). It often feels like the receivers have butterfingers. The defense hasn’t been what it was last season, though it looked good against the Chargers in the second half. But things are different. The team has not been as consistently good as it was last year.

And yet, listening to some of the media, you’d think Sanchez was a huge bust right out of the gate and was solely responsible for the team’s losses; that they often have to win in spite of him, like he’d had a number of Tony Romo-style meltdowns where he allows teams to come back from 20 to 30 points down in the fourth quarter.

The truth is that Sanchez’s numbers have steadily improved since 2009. He was protected in 2009, and the Jets ran the ball a lot. He threw for 2,444 yards, and had a passer rating of 63.0. He threw 12 touchdowns with 20 interceptions. In 2010, as the Jets protected him less, he threw for 3,291 yards with a passer rating of 75.3. He threw 17 touchdowns, 13 interceptions. This season, he’s posting an 83.0 rating through 7 games, throwing for 1,545 yards with 12 touchdowns and 6 interceptions.

And if the Jets had pulled it together in the second half against Oakland or pulled out the game in New England (during which they got off to a slow start but were never out of until the very end), this conversation about Sanchez being a bust wouldn’t even be happening.

[caption id="attachment_240" align="alignright" width="226" caption="Mark Sanchez (6) congratulates Plaxico Burress on a touchdown against the San Diego Chargers on October 23. Photo by Kathy Willens, the AP."][/caption]

People harass a quarterback when the team’s not doing well because the quarterback is the obvious target. Sanchez’s relatively small problems look bigger than they are because the team has been struggling under the glaring spotlight of the New York media. But he has steadily, though slowly, improved. He makes better decisions with the football.

His only terrible game this season was against Baltimore’s crushing defense, which he was lucky to come out of without major injury. No quarterback, no matter how good he is, will be able to perform well if he takes the pounding Sanchez took in that game. The offensive line completely failed. He was sacked twice and hit ten times that game. They weren’t little jolts, either. He got hit hard.

But most of the time, Sanchez has been a serviceable quarterback with a strong arm, more than capable of running a team. He’ll be all right if the Jets put good players around him and use game plans that work for him at this stage of his development. He's got some things to work on, like completing a higher percentage of passes, but again, he's mostly gotten better with time. He looked pretty solid against San Diego even with the one interception, and even though things were ugly against the Dolphins and he wasn’t the best player on the field, he shouldn’t have to apologize for being good enough to win.

If Sanchez will ever be able to carry the Jets the way Tom Brady carries the Patriots or the way Peyton Manning carries the Colts has yet to be seen, but he’s only 24. Jets fans, especially the ones who remember the bad years, aren’t ready to give up on him. It’s too early to give up on him.

Most people aren’t all they’re ever going to be at 24. Chances are good that Mark Sanchez isn’t, either.

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