While staff writer Chris Gross has been spending his time in the film room breaking down the New York Jets draft picks, I have spent the bulk of the my time in the film room going back through Mark Sanchez’s first three years as a NFL quarterback. There is no reason to sugarcoat the reality, this is a make or break year for Sanchez. There isn’t a backup quarterback in the NFL breathing heavier down the starter’s neck (for the wrong or right reasons) than Tim Tebow.
Sanchez has had more success in terms of winning football games than any other quarterback in franchise history, outside of Joe Namath. Unfortunately for him, NFL fans and New Yorkers in particular have a short memory. Right now all everybody can remember is Eli Manning hoisting up his second Super Bowl trophy in five years and Sanchez flaming out at the end of last season, most notably against those Super Bowl champion New York Giants.
So for better or worse, Sanchez’s time needs to be now. I have seen every snap he has taken since coming into this league but I wanted to go back to confirm my observations, with a particular focus on his best games and his worst games. What are the elements that went into the game plans that made him successful? What was missing in the games he struggled in? What is the best approach for Tony Sparano and the new offensive staff to take in order to get the most out of their starting quarterback?
Let’s start with a few general observations before getting into a specific games -
- Sanchez’s arm strength is not an issue. A common misconception about Sanchez’s game is that he lacks the arm strength to make all the throws necessary in a NFL playbook. He actually throws a very good deep ball when given the opportunity and has zipped plenty of passes into tight windows through bracketed coverage. Brian Schottenheimer did not ask Sanchez to throw outside the hashes a high percentage of the time but he has completed his share of deep outs and comebacks.
- He is a very good athlete. Sanchez is more mobile than people give him credit for and has an ability to extend the play. This has been a gift and a curse to him throughout his NFL career, as it has led to big plays and head scratching interceptions.
- He throws well on the run/is a good play action quarterback. It is head scratching why Brian Schottenheimer didn’t move the pocket more last season with the Jets suspect line. Sanchez throws very well on the rollout and has consistently succeeded off play action throughout his career.
- Coverage/Defense recognition. Many of Sanchez’s interceptions come from him not recognizing a defense properly, most notably not taking into account a defender playing underneath his target in a zone. The only solution to this is film study.
- Quick Trigger. When Sanchez is getting poor protection his defensive recognition goes from questionable to non-existent. He will often lock into to his first read and if that isn’t open, look immediately to his check down with an inaccurate pass. There have been times he has extended a play with his legs and created something down field, which is something he needs to do more often. Sanchez also must do better with blitz recognition pre-snap.
- Accuracy Inconsistencies. A factor in Sanchez’s low completion percentage throughout his career has been working with a different group of starting receivers every year of his career, including a few who couldn’t get separation. However, he is too often hot/cold when it comes to his accuracy. Sanchez must find a way to break himself out of slumps quicker.
The best stretch of football Sanchez played in his career, came in week 2-4 of the 2010 season. When he posted the following stat lines against his divisional rivals
- Week 2 – Vs. New England – 21/30, 220 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INTs
- Week 3 – At Miami – 15/28, 256 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INTs
- Week 4 – At Buffalo – 14/24, 161 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INTs
What were the common denominators in these games? Three key things: Dustin Keller, running the football, and limited passing attempts. Keller had 115 yards receiving against New England with a touchdown, 98 receiving yards and 2 touchdowns against Miami, and 28 receiving yards and 2 more touchdowns against Buffalo. An involved Keller means a productive Sanchez.
The Jets ran the ball well in all three games, going for 136 yards, 146 yards and 273 yards respectively. In each game, they averaged well over 4 yards per carry. Finally, they kept Sanchez’s pass attempts at 30 or under. The offense was well balanced but tipped slightly towards running the football.
It is interesting to note that Sanchez had one other very strong stretch in 2010 in week 9-11 that broke with the trends from the earlier stretch.
- Week 9 – At Detroit – 22/39, 336 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT
- Week 10 – At Cleveland – 27/44, 299 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT
- Week 11 – Vs. Houston – 22/38, 315 yards, 3 TDs, 1 INT
Note that despite Sanchez playing well, he turned the ball over in every game because his pass attempts went above 30. The Jets also didn’t run the ball as well producing 110 yards, 172 yards and 103 yards respectively and never cracking over 4 yards per carry. The Jets did win all three of these games but all were under extraordinary circumstances against subpar competition.
Sanchez had one last very good stretch of football in 2010, the divisional round against New England and the AFC Championship Game against Pittsburgh, with the best game coming against the Patriots. He went 16/25, for 194 yards and 3 touchdowns. Once again, under 30 attempts and a strong rushing effort (120 yards, 4.1 yard per carry) were present. Keller wasn’t a factor but Jerricho Cotchery filled the safety blanket void by coming up with 96 receiving yards. In the AFC Championship Game, Sanchez did just barely crack 30 attempts, going 20/33 for 233 yards and 2 TDs with 0 INTs but Keller had 8 receptions.
Looking at 2011, Sanchez didn’t really have a game that touched his stretch early in the 2010 season. He did have a few games that mirrored the middle stretch where he threw the ball a ton, racked up a bunch of passing yards but also turned the ball over. Sanchez threw the ball over 30 times in 10 games and the Jets had a 4-6 record in those contests. He actually threw the ball 35 times or more in 7 games and the team had a 2-5 record when that occurred.
Not surprisingly, his three best games from the standpoint of quarterback rating came when he threw 21 times, 26 times, and 25 times respectively. The running game was good not great in those games but in reality the running game was never great for the Jets last year, which was a major contributor to Sanchez’s and the team’s struggles.
What was most perplexing about last season is that the Jets waited until they had a questionable offensive line to drop Sanchez back at a much higher rate. 35 passes against Baltimore with Colin Baxter and Wayne Hunter starting? 59 passes against the Giants pass rush, with Wayne Hunter still starting? 40 passes in Denver, with yes…Wayne Hunter starting? That is poor coaching and those were three of Sanchez’s worst games last year. As you could imagine, the Jets averaged 75 rushing yards per game in those three losses and Dustin Keller averaged 43 yards receiving and had zero touchdowns.
On top of that, Sanchez was dealing with play calls that forced him to focus seemingly exclusively inside the hashes, where the most possible traffic was. The options on the outside were limited thanks to a sluggish Plaxico Burress and a struggling Santonio Holmes.
When it comes to coaching Sanchez this season, Tony Sparano would be wise to focus on building a reliable, power rushing attack. Ideally, Sanchez should be dropping back 22-28 times per game and be able to take advantage of his play action skills on a big chunk of those pass attempts. He should frequently be moved outside the pocket and Dustin Keller always needs to be a big part of the game plan. Rookie Stephen Hill and second year receiver Jeremy Kerley should help clear more space in the intermediate passing game for him. Finally, Sparano can’t be afraid to let Sanchez throw outside the hashes and down the field.
Without question, one of his biggest challenges will be game planning around the right tackle’s deficiencies, whether it is Wayne Hunter or Vlad Ducasse. If Sparano could protect Sanchez adequately, he has a quarterback more than talented enough to win with.