NEW YORK – For more than three decades the Jets have searched for a quarterback, searched for Joe Namath, searched for someone with both the physical tools and mental makeup to win in New York.
They've tried hotshot college guys and big-money free agents. They even tried Brett Favre. Over and over and over again it's blown up on them, the Meadowlands becoming a graveyard for green and white signal callers as much as Jimmy Hoffa.
Now here comes Mark Sanchez, California cool out of USC, the product of the boldest deal of the NFL draft. The Jets gave up three players and two picks to bank the future on this guy rather than sit tight and get Kansas State's Josh Freeman, the draft's third-rated QB, for nothing.
Say this about the Jets: They're bold. Under general manager Mike Tannenbaum, they've shown a willingness to gamble on personnel moves even as past ones failed. Months after the Favre experiment ended in disaster and forced the firing of Tannenbaum's friend, coach Eric Mangini, the Jets are now all in on Sanchez.
Sanchez became the 19th quarterback the franchise has drafted in any round since Namath's career was ending in the mid-1970s. He's the highest selection since Namath himself arrived in 1965 as the second overall pick.
Now he's the Jets' x-factor in the cutthroat AFC East.
The Jets were sold as much on Sanchez's personality as his physical skills. They believe he's got the star power, and confidence, to hold his own in an intense media environment and in front of some of the throatiest and most demanding fans in the NFL.
Jets fans here at Radio City Music Hall wildly cheered the selection Saturday. But their love can be as fickle as the swirling winds of East Rutherford.
Sanchez doesn't lack for confidence and maybe that's the key. He started just 16 games at USC but was sure enough in his abilities that he defied the advice of his coach, Pete Carroll, and left the powerful Trojans program with a year of eligibility remaining.
His moxie blew away the Jets' brain trust during meetings last month in California.
"This young man was so impressive," coach Rex Ryan told reporters Saturday. "We knew right then that this was a guy we really wanted."
It was enough for the Jets to buck the trend Saturday during what most teams felt was a talent-weak draft. They were the only team to make a significant move up in the first round. Teams such as Cleveland and New England kept trading back; the Patriots bailed on the first round altogether for cheaper second-round players.
New York did the opposite. They determined that this was the guy, the one that will save them from banking the season on Kellen Clemens.
"I've never grown up dreaming of being a backup," Sanchez promised.
The price was significant but not extraordinary. They sent Mangini three of his former players – quarterback Brett Ratcliff, who had been outplayed by Clemens in recent minicamp, defensive end Kenyon Coleman and safety Abram Elam. They also gave up their first (17) and second (52) round picks, meaning Sanchez was their only first-day selection.
"We certainly wouldn't have taken Mark if we didn't feel that he was a tremendous prospect and a guy that obviously we feel great about," Ryan told reporters.
It was that California workout that made the difference. Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer tested his arm and Sanchez delivered.
"Brian put him through every route known to man and he passed every one of them with flying colors," Ryan said.
It was more than that though. The Jets see a leader, someone who can make players follow him through the tough times.
"There had to be 20 receivers [at the workout] volunteering and I think that says something about this young man and the type of person he is," Ryan said. "Guys were coming out of the woodwork to run routes for him. … He has that kind of leadership."
Sanchez may be popular, but that doesn't get you past the Patriots. He'll play for a rookie head coach in Ryan who is known for his defenses. Ryan was in Baltimore last year as Joe Flacco developed into an immediate starter, but Baltimore and New York are far different places.
There's no Ravens defense to allow Sanchez to manage the game. There are no tabloid newspapers in Maryland and no tortured, torturing fan base either. There will be no honeymoon.
For more than three decades the Jets have searched for the next Namath, for someone that can bring it all together. They've tried everything. Now they'll try this confident kid with the matinee idol smile from L.A.
It's another bold gamble by New York; another fresh-faced gunslinger coming to town promising to beat back history.