Mark Sanchez started brutally bad, but was effective in Jets' first preseason game

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

DETROIT — Much like the infamous "butt fumble" from last year, Mark Sanchez's pick-six to a rookie defensive end in the first series of the first quarter of the New York Jets' first preseason game should get put into heavy rotation on the highlight shows — at least for a little while.

Hey, there is something mesmerizing about watching such total failure over and over. It was bad. It was brutal. It was brutally bad in a way that Sanchez sometimes seems to corner the market.

It was first-and-10 on the Jets' 21-yard line. Sanchez dropped back, saw nothing downfield, and, under pressure, tried to get rid of the ball. The idea was to throw it into the left flat where fullback Tommy Bohanon was supposed to be.

But Detroit defensive tackle C.J. Mosley blew apart Bohanon's route, so he wasn't in the flat — he was stumbling toward the ground. Sanchez threw it anyway, though, essentially to no one and nothing if the ball had gotten past the big mitts of defensive end Ziggy Ansah. It didn't. The BYU product grabbed the pass and charged in for the score. It was Ansah's fourth snap ever in the NFL.

"God, just not the way you want to start," Sanchez said. "But at the end of the day, you can't dwell on it. You've got to come back, you've got to get your next couple passes, you've got to move on. You can't let them see you sweat. You have to get it out of your head and come back strong."

And in Friday's 26-17 loss to the Lions at least, that's what Sanchez did. He came back. And if there is anything to take from the first official game of the Jets' ongoing quarterback battle between Sanchez and rookie Geno Smith, it's that the veteran didn't let brutally bad snowball into something worse.

Sanchez completed 10 of his other 12 passes for 125 yards and a touchdown. He made some nice downfield throws. On the scoring drive he was 5-for-5.

"Other than one crappy play, I thought it wasn't too bad," he said.

So how do you evaluate Mark Sanchez on a night like this? Coach Rex Ryan offered little — he claimed he mostly was consumed with the defense and didn't watch much of the quarterbacks. Although even he noted, "We can't have picks there."

A preponderance of Jets fans long ago decided they were ready to move past the Sanchise Era and pledged allegiance to Smith. Whatever steady play Sanchez offers, whatever reminders of past glory, whatever potential for improvement he puts out there — he is only 26 — are just buried under an avalanche of the brutally bad, past and present.

This was just one preseason game, the first no less, but Sanchez outplayed Smith. The rookie from West Virginia went 6-of-7 for 47 yards. Smith said he played "exceptionally well," but he led the offense to just one first down and mostly hit underneath receivers against predominantly second- and third-string  defenders.

Then there was the end of Smith's night, which came when he dropped back and held the ball — despite having open receivers downfield — only to scramble and get his foot caught in the Ford Field turf. He limped off with a right ankle injury and didn't return. Smith said he'd just rolled the ankle, though, and he hopes to be ready for practice by Monday.

That's part of the evaluation too.

The Jets coaches will cut up the game footage and grade it all out in ways that the media and fans can't. Personnel and play-calling play huge factors in these things. Neither Sanchez nor Smith won or lost the starting QB position Friday.

Still, this was some strange microcosm of Sanchez's life with the Jets. Even when he makes just one mistake, it's so glaring and blows up so spectacularly it can overwhelm all the non-mistakes.

That gets compounded because the fifth-year veteran out of Southern California remains if not sensitive to perceptions about him, then at least image conscious.

After this game, he showered and changed into a fashionable shirt and sport coat ensemble for the televised media conference. Then he went back to the locker room and got into flip flops, Nike shorts and a Dave Matthews Band cutoff T-shirt for the flight out of town. Smith just wore jeans and a "Billionaire Boys Club" T-shirt for all of it.

So how does a guy who wants to present himself in the best possible light — no shame there — deal with becoming the kind of rollicking punch line of the purveyor of these all-time bad plays? The "butt fumble" occurred last Thanksgiving. It may never go off the air.

Sanchez is well meaning. He wants to be good. He wants to be the Jets' starter. He wants to recapture that momentum from his first two seasons in New York, when he was under center for four playoff victories, all on the road. But the roster is no longer close to that one, which means he has to be better.

Until recently, there was a measure of coddling in the way the Jets handled Sanchez. Ryan was protective and defensive of him, particularly early on, which was probably best at the time. The front office never went out and got a viable backup to push him for playing time — the Tim Tebow experiment was an overwhelming fiasco.

Now, Smith brings real pressure — external and internal. All the fan and media heat can either crush Sanchez or make him tougher. Whether he likes it or not, everyone can see him sweat now.

On this night, at least, he didn't worry about how he was going to look in the replays.

"It's one of those things. You play long enough, you [learn you] can't dwell on it," he said. "It can't affect your next throw and it didn't. I'm happy about that. I know I'm getting better at it. It comes with time. It comes with maturity and just playing."

This is a competition where the Jets are looking for a sign of life — be it potential from the rookie or a rekindling from the veteran.

Mark Sanchez couldn't have started the game much worse. Yet, at least it didn't get even worse from there. It actually got pretty good. That is, if you look past the brutally bad.

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