By Jeff Capellini, CBSNewYork.com
NEW YORK (CBS 2) -- As far back as any of us can remember the Jets' success in 2010 was to be hinged on the development of Mark Sanchez. It wasn't going to really matter who General Manager Mike Tannenbaum brought in to play around his quarterback or how good the team's defense would end up being. The bottom line was as Sanchez would go, so would the Jets.
Well, nine games into the season Sanchez has shown the entire NFL he's one cool customer with a ton of ability and maturity beyond his years.
A case can be made that the Jets would not have a share of the best record in football without this kid making the quantum leap he's made so far. And a further case can be made that the 7-2 Jets will in all likelihood not go as far as everyone seems to think they are capable of going without the sophomore signal caller continuing to do what he's done to this point.
It's been a rather remarkable ride so far that may only continue. It basically has to. In case there is still any doubt, the Jets are now, officially, Sanchez's team.
And the Jets will need him to prolong his utterly fantastic play because they simply are not as good in certain areas as many thought they would be -- at least not yet.
The running game has been better than average, but not even close to what it was last season when the Jets' combination of Thomas Jones and then-rookie Shonn Greene was so effective and the defense was so menacing it made little difference what Sanchez did. I mean how else does one explain the Jets getting to the AFC Championship game with a quarterback who threw for a little more than 2,000 yards with just 12 touchdown passes and 20 interceptions?
Many fans want the Jets to once again be that ground machine with a defense that rarely allows a touchdown, but there's simply no arguing the fact that they aren't right now and likely won't be fully by season's end. It's possible the defense will get better, but the running game has kind of been pushed into the background for two reasons.
First, offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer has struggled all season with his play-calling consistency. He's been unable to make up his mind who his featured back should be and hasn't found the proper carry ratio for LaDainian Tomlinson and Greene to allow the former to be fresh for the stretch run or the latter to do what he's bred to do -- move the chains and wear down the opposition.
Second, Sanchez has elevated his play to such a level the need for "ground and pound" has been pushed to the background. Schottenheimer used to shy away from calling No. 6's number in the face of previous adversity, but that's hardly the case anymore. In a sense, the Jets have found a run-pass balance on offense and will continue to try to win that way even though conventional wisdom has always suggested that a solid running game -- and a squelching defense -- are the recipe for winning football, especially in December and especially in the playoffs.
For all the hype it receives, the Jets' defense has yet to live up to its lofty reputation. While still among the league's best overall, the unit seems to perform like more of a situational disturbance to the opposition. The Jets still allow scoring drives at absolutely the worst times, as evidenced by late TDs given up the last two weeks against Detroit and Cleveland, respectively. The Jets may blitz like there is no tomorrow, but they don't get nearly enough pressure on the quarterback. They have 20 sacks in nine games. That's not exactly dominant. Jason Taylor has been largely a non-factor, Shaun Ellis is not the same player and Calvin Pace has pulled many a disappearing act.
And though this defense is ranked fifth overall and against the run, it has allowed at least 20 points five times.
But all of this has been put on the back burner due to the fact that Sanchez has performed so admirably. He is on pace to throw for more than 3,000 yards and to flip his TD-INT stats from last season. But beyond the obvious numbers he's shown nothing but composure in difficult situations.
Last season he was the king of the happy feet dance step in the face of serious pressure, but this season he's put his inner Fred Astaire to bed. Sanchez's elusiveness has become part of his game. He escaped from the jaws of the Cleveland pass rush several times on Sunday, most notably on one occasion that ended with a 25-yard scoring strike to Jerricho Cotchery and another where he looked dead to rights only to roll to his left, throw across his body and find Cotchery for a first down, a catch by No. 89 that should be in an end-of-season league-wide highlight package.
Sanchez also now appears to know how to eat the football and isn't forcing the ball into coverage like he did during basically all of the 2009 season. He's thrown just six interceptions, has not lost a fumble and has been sacked just 14 times.
Beyond the statistics have been the intangibles. Sanchez has engineered game-winning drives in three of the last four games. Two weeks ago in Detroit he brought the Jets back from 10 points down late in the fourth quarter with a rushing TD and timely throws that led to a tying field goal at the end of regulation and the winner in overtime. He then led the Jets into the NFL record book on Sunday. His 37-yard touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes late in the extra quarter gave the Jets back-to-back road overtime victories, a feat never achieved before in the history of the NFL.
And let's not ever question this man's toughness. Sanchez hobbled off the field in the third quarter on Sunday with what appeared to be a pretty serious leg injury. He didn't look too good on the sidelines while being attended to by the team's medical staff. Mark Brunell was seen warming up and the collective groan heard 400 miles away in the tri-state area was only matched in ferocity by the sheer fear on the Internet.
But yet, there Sanchez was hobbling back out on the field for the next series. He didn't miss a play the rest of the way. On the contrary, he did nothing but make plays.
Browns head coach Eric Mangini stated the obvious on Sunday afternoon. The Jets are loaded on both sides of the ball, but it's hard to know if he was including Sanchez among the stars. Yet it's Sanchez who has and will continue to align the Jets in the skies as they shoot for the moon via Dallas.
And what was it longtime NFL head coach Marty Schottenheimer said way back in Episode 2 of HBO's "Hard Knocks?" Ah yes. If you can get a second-year quarterback to play at the same level as he did as a rookie you've made progress.
Well, if that's the case, there should be a picture of Sanchez next to the word "progress" in any dictionary you choose to read.
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