SEATTLE -- Through the first nine weeks of the 2012 NFL season, Mark Sanchez of the New York Jets has performed at a level that puts him 28th among qualifying quarterbacks in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics. In his four-year career, Sanchez has never ranked higher than 20th in FO's season-cumulative DYAR stats, and never higher than 28th in its per-play DVOA rankings. In the last year, Sanchez has seen anonymous teammates question his character, his own general manager wonder whether he'll ever take that nebulous next step, and his team trade for Tim Tebow, thus throwing the quarterback situation into a perma-drama that benefits nobody.
Most people thought that Sanchez was ready for the pros when he declared for the 2009 NFL draft, and the Jets certainly agreed -- they traded up to grab the fifth overall pick and the rights to Sanchez's future. The Jets went to the AFC championship game in each of Sanchez's first two years, but that didn't have as much to do with the quarterback as it did with the run game and defense.
The Jets ranked dead last in pass attempts in Sanchez's rookie year, and 18th in his second. Conversely, they ranked first in rushing attempts in 2009, and second in 2010. It was really over the last two seasons, when that defense and run game began to atrophy, that the pressure started to ramp up on Sanchez. The Jets' early paradigm was to camouflage their quarterback, and that's a system that's worked for many teams -- the 2004-2005 Pittsburgh Steelers come to mind, when they when 15-1 in Ben Roethlisberger's first year and won a Super Bowl in his second.
Eventually, though, Roethlisberger was able to repay that patience by becoming one of the NFL's great quarterbacks and putting the Steelers on his shoulders often enough. Four seasons in, there is absolutely no certainty that Sanchez will ever be able to do the same thing.
One man who saw this coming was Pete Carroll, who coached Sanchez at USC and openly questioned whether Sanchez was ready for the draft when he declared. It sounded selfish of Carroll at the time, and the success of certain underclass quarterbacks in recent years indicate that Carroll's concern wasn't really universal, but that Carroll said of his quarterback in January 2009 now seems to ring very true.
Pointing to a study that indicated a 62 percent failure rate for quarterbacks who declare themselves eligible for the NFL draft as underclassmen, Carroll made it as clear as possible -- Sanchez was making a mistake in not staying with the Trojans. Carroll also cited Sanchez's second-round grade in pre-draft evaluation as a factor.
"The facts are so strong against this decision," Carroll said. "After analyzing all the information, the truth is there — he should've stayed for another year ... Mark's chance to increase his value and become the top player in college football next year would have been worth $10-$20 million or more — likely more. One more year of running a team is almost priceless, so he lost the chance to fully prepare himself and become the very best he could be before going to the NFL."
Coming out early didn't affect Sanchez's financial prospects, because the Jets gave him a five-year, $58.25 million contract extension in March of this year, but his NFL legacy is another matter. The real question with Sanchez seems to be: Would he really have benefited from another year at USC, or was this his ceiling all along, and this is what we're going to get?
Carroll's Seahawks face the Jets this Sunday, so he was of course asked to rate Sanchez four years down the road, and recall his thought process regarding Sanchez at the time.
"I told him exactly what I felt," Carroll told me on Wednesday. "After long discussions with his father, who was very much a part of that, we went straight at it. There were no other agendas, I was just telling him. He only had the benefit of starting 16 games, and knew that it would be great for him to be as absolutely prepared and to be as great as experienced as he could be before going in. There was nobody in the world who was more thrilled than me when he did well in his first year. I thought they did a great job and he had won his first three games, then he struggled a little bit, and then he came back and got going and led them deep into the playoffs. I couldn't be more fired up for him.
"The reason was that Mark had his mind set on doing this, and he was determined to prove that he could do it. I support him in that and I love that he was feeling that way. I just told him what was the truth and he could have been better prepared if we would have had him for another year and I think it would've served him even better. But he did a marvelous job and I love what he's doing. Mark and I get along great and I follow him every week and it will be really fun playing against him this week."
[Related: Mark Sanchez splits with Eva Longoria]
Asked about Carroll's motivations on Wednesday, Jets head coach Rex Ryan intimated that Carroll might have been acting more in his own best interest.
"I did not blame Pete Carroll one bit, because if I had that young man as my quarterback, I'd say whatever it took to get the guy to stay with me," Ryan said. "Like, 'Oh you're not ready, son. As far as you know you're not ready to play.' Deep down he knew he was ready.
"I put myself in his shoes…I don't want to lose my quarterback. This guy's got a ton of ability and all that, but you don't want to lose a player of [Sanchez's] caliber, especially one at that position.
"I mean, it's hard to find these quarterbacks."
Indeed it is. Long into Mark Sanchez's NFL career, the Jets still seem unsure that they've done so. And if they're not, they should be.
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