CORTLAND, N.Y. – Mark Sanchez panicked. He ducked. He twirled his head. Finally he threw up his arms. He waved his hands. He was done. He quit. He gave up.
"These flies!" the Jets quarterback said, waving at a barrage of tiny gnats that buzzed his face as he stood under a tent at SUNY Courtland this week.
"Is it tough?" a man asked him.
The question was about the perception the team's quarterback competition is already rigged in favor of Geno Smith, and that Sanchez – helpless against the gnats – stood even less chance of keeping his job.
"The flies?" he asked. "Yeah, it's tough. They remind me of [coach] Rex [Ryan's] damn defense out there the way they swarm around you."
Everywhere, Sanchez is under siege, whether from Mycetophilidae, media or metro New Yorkers. Just two summers ago, he was posing for magazine covers, the fresh new face of football quarterbacks. Today, he is seen as all but done, destined to lose his job to a rookie with great potential, but one who was not wanted in the first round of the draft. With his every throw dissected in this camp – and many of those throws wobbling – the consensus from those who watch every day is that he stands no chance of beating Smith.
And yet the Jets won't give away his job. Not just yet. Players don't suggest favoritism in interviews and Ryan does not heap extra praise upon Smith the way coaches do sometimes when they are pushing one player over another in a position battle.
"I think everyone gets enamored with the guy who throws a 96 mph fastball," Ryan said the other day. "Mark is good enough to play in this league."
So what if, in fact, Sanchez does have a chance to win the starting quarterback job? What if the Jets see a growth that isn't evident yet in 11-on -11 drills in camp – something Smith has looked better at running in the first days of practice? Sanchez did, after all, quarterback the Jets to two AFC title games his first two years in the NFL. And while those teams were built around an aggressive defense and a strong running game, Sanchez still had to make big passes. He has still started 68 regular-season games and six playoff games. He has experience few other quarterbacks have.
Yes, he has made agonizing mistakes and finished last season with an atrocious quarterback rating of 66.9 and 18 interceptions. But he has also been through a flood of offense shifts, a procession of new coordinators and plenty of injuries on offense. For the first time, he has been placed with a quarterback-friendly system in the West Coast offense and is working with an offensive coordinator, Marty Mornhinweg, who is known for developing passers.
Some of Mornhinweg's best work was done with Michael Vick in the months after Vick left prison in 2009. He turned a flawed quarterback who played recklessly into a focused runner and passer who dominated the NFL for much of the 2010 season.
Mornhinweg and quarterback coach, David Lee, are working on Sanchez's footwork. They are trying to get him to plant his feet better, to be in a better position to throw. It's something Sanchez hasn't worked on much in his career and a fundamental that a lot of quarterback coaches feel is essential for a quarterback's success. For instance, the Broncos assistants and, later, Chris Weinke, the quarterback guru at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., worked for hours on Tim Tebow's footwork in the belief it would make him a more accurate passer.
Sanchez said he is still working to make the new footwork a natural thing, something he is not consciously considering every time he throws a pass in practice. Doing this takes time. He compared it to someone in the military, spending hours and hours in camps in the United States, learning to go from house-to-house in a hostile war zone so when the soldier actually gets overseas the mission seems natural.
He says he is much better at fundamentals than he has been in his NFL career, where he was rushed into a starting role his rookie season.
Mornhinweg has told Sanchez several times that the offense can work in his favor. Mornhinweg has calmed Sanchez by telling him that of 64 plays Mornhinweg might call in a game, 60 will be designed to protect him and use his skills the best. It's the other four where he will have to improvise and make a quick decision, whether it is throwing the ball away or scrambling for a first down.
For once, Sanchez is going to be in a system that will take advantage of his skills. And this is why it's hard to look at Sanchez as the clear loser in this battle with Smith.
The Jets seem to want to be innovative this year. They have already shown a variety of non-traditional offensive looks in training camp that are either going to be implemented into their playbook or are dummy plays to show the fans in camp and throw off opponents who will read about them on social media. The coaches talk enough about the wildcat to make one think it will somehow be involved in the game plan; it's a system that will obviously favor Smith, who is considered a better runner than Sanchez.
But the Jets are not going to run the wildcat all the time. They did not bring in a master of the West Coast offense to coach something that won't be a system offense. And because of this, Mark Sanchez has a decent chance in a battle everyone assumes he is going to lose.
Maybe then the buzzing around him won't constantly feel like 100 gnats on a midsummer day.
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