For the majority of Mark Sanchez career’s I have largely defended the Jet quarterback’s combination of mediocrity and timely heroic performances as part of the growing pains for a young quarterback in the NFL. Traditionally it takes time for young quarterbacks to adjust to the speed and style of the NFL game and it wasn’t until this past season with the play of Cam Newton and Andy Dalton that this trend was seriously bucked. Therefore I was willing, as well as many others, to give Sanchez a pass on his numbers and focus on the mere fact that the fifth overall selection in the 2009 Draft worked as part of a system that resulted in a 19-12 record, a 4-2 record in the playoffs, and two trips to the AFC Championship game during the quarterback’s first two seasons in the league. Still there existed a plethora of doubters which wondered if Sanchez’s success had more to do with the presence of a great running game and defense, than the quarterback’s ability to effectively lead an offense on the field of battle (i.e. not the caliber of quarterback needed to win a Lombardi trophy).
Unfortunately for Sanchez the 2011 season was less than kind to the third year starter. As a team, the Jets struggled to match the blusterous claims of their head coach, losing key games early in the season to the Raiders, Ravens, and Patriots, then finishing with a three game losing streak that cost New York a trip to the playoffs for a third straight season.
As is all too often the case for quarterbacks, Sanchez began receiving a significant portion of the blame for a season which fell short of expectations. Anonymous teammates echoed the many of the thoughts/feeling present in the minds of the media and fan base as to whether or not Sanchez was the right quarterback to lead the franchise back to Super Bowl glory. The fact the Sanchez had one of his worst games of the season in the Week 17 loss to the Dolphins only made things worse for the quarterback, especially given the fact that the Jets would have made the playoffs if victory had been achieved in Miami.
But is the criticism directed at Sanchez just?
Sanchez’s overall numbers for the 2011 season seem to legitimize the criticism. The quarterback completed only 56.7% of his passes, tossed for 3474 yards, with 26TDs/18INTs and finishing with a 78.2 passing rating, which was worse than Ryan Fitzpatrick and Tarvaris Jackson. Far more damaging for Sanchez this season is the fact that he committed 26 total turnovers (fumbles lost and interceptions). Ho hum numbers and an abundance of turnovers made the quarterback an easy target to blame for the Jets’ 8-8 record.
However, with the exception of the turnovers, Sanchez’s passing numbers were all career highs and they happened to be achieved in spite of a suspect receiving corps and offensive play calling.
Playing in the New York market as well as the team having early success in his career hasn’t helped those Sanchez apologists defend the quarterback’s run-of-the-mill stats. However, if you compare Sanchez’s numbers to Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger’s third seasons as starters in the NFL, the Jet quarterback’s stats for the 2011 season seem rather palatable:
- Eli Manning: 8-8 record, 57.7% completions, 3244 passing yards, 24TDs/18INTs, and 20 total turnovers.
- Ben Roethlisberger: 7-8 record, 59.7% completions, 3513 passing yards, 18TDs/23INTs, and 25 total turnovers.
Note: Both Manning and Roethlisberger had running games which ranked in the Top Ten of the league during their third seasons.
In no way am I insinuating that Sanchez is excused from his mediocrity this season. But I don’t think it is fair to show restraint and perspective in the evaluation of developing quarterbacks in this league, especially given the fact that no one would argue that either Manning or Roethlisberger aren’t two of the top ten quarterbacks in the league right now. This is not to say the Sanchez will develop into of the league’s best, but rather at this point and time in his career the jury is still out.
It’s also important to weigh Sanchez’s performance this season against the fact that the Jets lacked one of the league top running games as well as a stout defense…something the quarterback could rely on during his first two seasons.
During the 2009 and 2010 seasons the Jets possessed one of the league’s most potent offensive rushing attacks averaging 172.2 and 148.4 yards per game respectively. However, even though the running game was the backbone of the team’s offensive success during Sanchez’s first two seasons, the game plan was altered during a shortened offense and the commitment to the run was giving up in favor of a reliance on an aerial attack. The result was a drop in offensive production from 11th in total yards in the NFL to 25th. The passing game improved its production by less than four yards per game in 2011 and the vaunted rushing attack dropped nearly 45 yards per game to 105.8, good enough for a 22nd ranking.
Interestingly enough though the Jets’ offense scored more total points than either of the two previous season, in spite of Sanchez’s turnovers and an discombobulated offensive line which allowed 40 sacks (10 more than in 2009 and 12 more than 2010).
Whether the front office, coaching staff, offensive line, wide receiving corps, or Sanchez deserves the majority of the blame for the offense’s mediocrity in 2011 is debatable. But at the very least each failed in some capacity and the idea of moving away from a commitment to the run was certainly a mistake. Not to mention the front office’s failures to adequately keep enough running backs on the roster handle the injuries suffered to LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Green this season.
All of this said, any analysis of the Jets’ offense and Mark Sanchez’s performance this season is incomplete without a discussion of the defense’s failures. Although Rex Ryan’s defense maintained a Top 5 ranking in the NFL for the third straight season, allowing an average of only 306.8 yard per game, the defense was less than impressive in key games this season.
In the two previous seasons combined Ryan’s defense had only allowed 29 or more points in a total of six games (including the playoffs). In 2011, the defense matched this total, allowing 29 or more points in six games, all of which the Jets lost: Oakland, Baltimore, New England x2, Philadelphia, and New York (New York is now 0-12 during the Rex Ryan era when allowing 29+ points in a game). Consequently the defense gave up nearly four more points per game than in 2010 and a smidgen under eight more than in 2009.
Of course poor offensive play contributed in some part to this increase in points allowed, as Sanchez produced half of his 26 turnovers in these games. Still the Jets’ offense also found itself having to play catch-up in games where the defense simply wasn’t a factor, thus fully relying on Sanchez’s arm to drive offensive production. Yet relying on the aerial attack to outscore opponents in high scoring games isn’t what the Jets offense was built for.
All of this is not to say that if the Jets’ defense had performed better this year that the team would have made another serious run in the playoffs. But the team would have certainly obtained a Wild Card spot with a better defensive performance in at least one game this season (either Week 3 in Oakland, Week 5 in New England, or Week 11 in Denver comes to mind).
And win or lose in the playoffs would the same discussion about Sanchez’s viability as quarterback be taking place if New York had made the postseason?
Ultimately the question is whether or not Sanchez is fit to help lead the Jets’ offense and team to a Super Bowl victory. Since Sanchez is still a developing quarterback I believe there is no answer to this question.
However, even if you’re a non-believer and view Sanchez as “loser” who lacks the “it” factor then don’t forget the names of some other “losers” who needed only circumstance and/or maturity to win a Lombardi Trophy:
- Eli Manning
- Peyton Manning
- Trent Dilfer
- John Elway
- Steve Young
Again I’m in no way comparing Sanchez to Hall of Famers like Elway, Young, and Manning. But at one time or another in all five of these quarterbacks’ careers it was debatable whether or not they were capable of leading a team to a Super Bowl victory.
In the end whether or not these quarterback’s hoisted the Lombardi trophy was just as much about the personnel on their teams and who they faced in the playoffs, as it was the talent they possessed. The question is can the Jets construct a winning formula around Sanchez?
With the resignation/firing of offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, New York can move forward and determine whether it was Schottenheimer or Sanchez’s limitations which had been “stunting” the quarterback’s development. Jet fans can only hope that Schottenheimer’s replacement, Tony Sparano, is able to institute on offensive philosophy that matches the strengths of the personnel on the roster and that the coaching staff can continue the positive development of Sanchez.
Regardless, it may take two more full seasons for New York to determine whether or not Sanchez is indeed a franchise quarterback, as new offensive schemes rarely have success during the first year of implementation. In the mean time it would behoove the front office to take LaDainian Tomlinson’s advice by drafting or bring in a capable backup quarterback as insurance as well as to push Sanchez. The current backup, 41 year old Mark Brunell who possesses the mobility and body strength of a 100 year old, is hardly a threat to Sanchez’s job security.
And while it remains to be seen whether or not New York can achieve its title aspirations with Sanchez at the helm, one thing is for certain…the doubt and criticism directed at Sanchez won’t ebb until the Jets win a Super Bowl.
What are your thoughts?
LaDainian Tomlinson talks about Sanchez and the Jets on Inside the NFL:
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