FLORHAM PARK, N.J. – New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez is going through a turbulent offseason. The incumbent starter has faced criticism from teammates, reports that he and wide receiver Santonio Holmes didn't get along, and the threat of his team's brief dalliance with Peyton Manning. Then the Jets traded for popular and controversial quarterback Tim Tebow.
All the while, Sanchez said in an interview this week, he has tried to stay focused on simply playing better. He endured an up-and-down 2011 season, his third in the NFL. He posted career highs in yards, touchdown, completion percentage and quarterback rating. Unfortunately, he also had a career-high 26 turnovers, including eight lost fumbles and a career-low 6.4 yards per pass. His yards per attempt ranked No. 27 of the 33 quarterbacks who threw at least 250 passes.
In an effort to fix that, Sanchez said he worked extensively with former Jets quarterback and 11-year veteran Chad Pennington on everything from the basics of ball security to the mental side of focusing on his job amid all the "noise" this offseason.
On Tuesday at the New York Jets facility in Florham Park, N.J., Yahoo! Sports sat down with Sanchez to talk about his struggles in 2011, his unusual offseason training partner and, of course, Tebow:
Jason Cole: Of the interviews you've done the past few months, most of the questions focus on how you've handled the numerous issues that have come up this offseason. However, it seems the more essential question is what went wrong last season and what are you doing to fix that?
Sanchez: I think the most important stat line from last year was turnovers. So anything I can do to eliminate turnovers, that's what I'm going to do. That's why I called [Pennington].
You look at Chad and, number one, he has played for [new Jets offensive coordinator Tony] Sparano before, so that was natural right there. It made a grand slam [with] him being one of the most cerebral quarterbacks in the game the past few years, up there with Peyton Manning. [He's] a great decision maker, knows when to throw the ball away, knows when to check it down, knows when to take a sack, call a timeout, how to run a two-minute drill. He knows how to save turnovers and that's key to me. If we save four or five turnovers last season, we're looking at a different season and a different last three games and who knows.
Cole: You did this on your own, without any pushing from coach Rex Ryan or Sparano?
Sanchez: There was no push from Tony. I had never met Tony and those plans were set up. My agent got Chad's number and I texted him. It was kind of out of the blue [Sanchez laughs]. I said, 'I hope you're cool with this, it's really me.' Right away, he said, 'I'm glad you called, I was hoping you would, great, let's do it.' I went down to South Florida, where he's living now, a couple of times for three or four days each time. It was great.
Cole: And he said?
Sanchez: Don't let things seem bigger than they really are. If you eliminate a couple of turnovers, you win, plain and simple. Now, how are you going to eat that big elephant one bite at a time? First, your footwork has to be right on, from read to read to read. If it's not there, throw the ball away, move on with your life. Keep playing, keep fighting. He also said that my footwork started to fade toward the end of last season and I told him I didn't feel great. I felt weak. So I had to work on that. Boom, we wrote it down and here were the goals. That became my plan.
Cole: So what happened with your footwork?
Sanchez: I took a couple of shots early in the season and I wasn't able to lift as hard during the season as I wanted to. Don't get me wrong, I'm not an Olympic lifter. But at the same time, you need some strength. By the end of the season, I was down to 218-220 pounds and I'm usually 225-230 pounds plus. I just didn't have it. I was trying to throw too much with just my arm and my upper body, I wasn't using my legs enough and I just wasn't as sound physically as I should be and it showed.
Cole: Late in the season, there were times when you threw to the left side and it looked like the ball really sailed on you. Is that what you're talking about?
Sanchez: I'm sure that's part of it. … Right now, I'm feeling a lot stronger. I'm at 232 and it's noticeable from what I'm hearing. The coaches are saying, 'Woah, you've been working.' I've been lifting really hard with my upper body, which is something I never really had done before.
Cole: Did you work on that with Pennington directly?
Sanchez: I went with my strength guy, Todd Norman. But the funny thing is that when I talked to him, the first thing he said was, 'What do you think about lifting a little harder, a little more upper body? I don't want you to be stiff, but at the same time, put on some functional weight?' I was like, 'Dude, I'm there, that's exactly what I needed.' It was like he read my mind after I talked to Chad or almost like he was talking to Chad.
Cole: Did you feel that as the season wore on, teams were crowding the offense and challenging you to throw deep or make the tougher throws to the outside?
Sanchez: In general, as an offense, we didn't have big-play ability because we didn't make the routine plays that open up the big plays. So when you're third-and-10, that's not when big plays happen. They come on second-and-short when you're moving the sticks.
Regardless, we just did't have them, so by Week 8, 9 or 10, opposing teams were basically saying, 'If they can burn us with a big play, fine, [but] when was the last time they had one?' The other teams played the percentages. They looked and said, 'When was the last time they had a play over 25 yards or 30 yards, other than a scramble or a broken play?' I bet you there were two.
Cole: Are you being prodded by the fans, the media or even the team to see how you're going to react? This offseason has been one thing after another, from story about you and Santonio Holmes to whether the Jets were interested in Peyton Manning to the trade for Tim Tebow.
Sanchez: The whole Peyton thing was a lot bigger than I really think it was supposed to be because my agent and my brother were talking to the team about my contract the whole time while that was going on. The team was saying , 'We're not going after [Manning].' Obviously, the team doesn't always show its hand all the time. They're not going to say everything they're doing. Still, I knew in the back of my mind that the contract was getting done, so I had that in my back pocket, fine. Then the trade for Tebow happened and I just didn't really have time to think about it or worry about.
I just knew, I trust Rex. I trust the building, the people here like [Tannenbaum]. I trust this team and I know the goal is to get as many good football players as possible. This one just happens to be a quarterback and just happens to be Tim Tebow, who comes with a whole lot more than a typical backup quarterback. He can do a million things. …
Tim is making whatever he makes, he's a good leader, a great person, a hard worker and he plays quarterback and he can do other stuff. Why not go get him? Yeah, does he come with more attention than other players? Sure, but who cares? To me, if I can't handle that, I shouldn't play here.
A funny aside to the whole thing: After we traded for Tim, I'm in the weight room feeling good, feeling big, thick, really in shape. I'm doing pull-ups with extra weight on. I'm doing squats, the whole thing. Then here comes Tim, the Incredible Hulk. I'm doing the pull ups with the extra weight and then he does them with two kettle bells and he just powers through them. He's just an ox. He was awesome and I'm like, 'OK, I'm not at that level.' It was funny. He's just a monster. He has been a really great guy to be around.
Cole: His lifestyle is different than a lot of other guys in the game and likely different than yours. While there is nothing wrong with guys going out to have a good time, do you ever worry that if you don't play well, people are going to start to compare you guys in terms of your personal lives and use that as a basis of criticism?
Sanchez: I know exactly what you're saying. Exactly. But I don't think like that. I don't think in terms of the negative hypothetical. There is one way to make sure you never get in trouble and that is never get in trouble. Now, is there anything wrong with going out and drinking? Well, if you're 21, you're allowed to go out and drink. But if you never drink, you'll never get a DUI. There are other ways to do it. You can use good judgment. You can have a good time when you're supposed to and do the right thing. Make sure that you're safe, fine. But when people compare lifestyles and personalities …
Cole: But you know how New York is.
Sanchez: Sure. I have to make sure what I'm doing is the best thing for this team on and off the field. Does it have to be exactly what Tim does? No. Sometimes? Yeah, maybe. But I have to be comfortable that what I'm doing is protecting the team and then I have to ignore the noise. Lately, there is a lot of noise. But it's a good test. It really is. This is unique.
Cole: Right, but there haven't been many players who generate as much interest or discussion as what Tebow generates.
Sanchez: It's unbelievable. It's crazy. It blows your mind. And the really crazy part is that it's not like he's really into it. He's not pushing it. It's not like his PR machine is trying to do this; it's just that people gravitate toward him because he is such a good guy. He's a great guy and they should gravitate to him. It's a polarizing deal for a lot of people, but he's not the one pushing it that way.
Cole: What's the toughest thing you ever dealt with?
Sanchez: Leaving school was pretty hard. My parents' divorce was really hard. I was young and I didn't really get it. But when I got older it was like, 'Oh, now I get it.' I lived with my mom at first and then my dad.
Leaving school was tough because everybody wanted me to stay. Everybody in my family wanted me to stay. That was probably the first big decision where I went against the grain of what my family had played.
Cole: So how does this situation compare to that? You're coming off a third year that had some decline and some improvement statistically. The team didn't make the playoffs, but it had the previous two years.
Sanchez: I don't know if this makes sense, but if I had been in another market and all this happened, it would probably be a lot harder to deal with. Or if I had been somewhere else and come to New York for the first time and this happened, that would be light years different. But because I've been here, since I have seen the pressure put on players here, the pressure we put on ourselves here the past three years, it's like, Fine. He's here for a reason. I either handle it and play well or I don't.
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