Mark Sanchez’s 2013 season ended in pain after suffering an injury in the Jets’ third preseason game. It led to one of the most bizarre campaigns of coach bashing the NFL has ever seen. Rex Ryan and John Idzik were roundly criticized in the media for putting "their starting quarterback" behind an offensive line of backups. This ignores the fact that Sanchez was not in fact the starting quarterback at that point. Sanchez was competing for the job. Geno Smith also had played snaps behind the second team offensive line. He had even suffered an injury of his own.
The narrative that Sanchez had won the starting job was based on Geno playing a very poor third preseason game. The logic is that the decision would be made entirely by Geno’s performance in those three quarters. Their work up to that point in training camp where their performances were widely reported to be close, Sanchez’s own mistake-prone preseason performance, and their respective pasts and future upsides apparently didn’t matter.
The crocodile tears coming from the writers covering this team were overwhelming. One actually called for Ryan’s firing that night. Another later actually said a few weeks later, and I quote, "Ryan and Idzik have sons that play college football. How would they have felt in that situation?" The implication is the Jets got Sanchez hurt, and did something immoral to put a player in harm’s way. I’m not sure, but I’d imagine Phil Simms, the father of the quarterback who replaced Sanchez that night and played behind the same offensive line wouldn’t have been outraged. His son, Matt, played well, and that helped him earn a roster spot.
Welcome to the Mark Sanchez Experience, one of the most bizarre things you well ever see.
The Sanchez injury did not destroy the 2013 season. It’s easy to forget how we got to the point where Sanchez was playing in that game. He had to compete for his job because his play was so poor in 2012 that the Jets could not in good conscience have anointed him the starter. They even felt compelled to draft a replacement. All signs pointed to Sanchez being shopped and then cut at the end of the preseason until David Garrard briefly retired. In the end, Geno Smith played at least as well statistically with essentially the same receiving corps and a worse offensive line than Sanchez had in 2012.
I think the Jets would have been better off cutting ties with Sanchez right after they took Geno. There were scrap heap veterans just as talented as Sanchez. Mark had proven he was a pretty low upside guy. After four years, you usually know what you have in a player. Mark looked like a guy whose best case scenario was backup quarterback.
Could he have been a backup quarterback in New York? That would have been a tough situation. Mark was once the face of the franchise. He was a guy people said was a budding superstar. He was the foundation of the future. Now he had to compete for the job that had been his uncontested for four years and against a new quarterback brought in to be the future no less. It’s human nature for that situation to be unacceptable. You can take a step backwards going somewhere else, but becoming the second banana at a place where you were once king is just too much for most people, particularly in such a public setting. It clearly was for Sanchez when he reportedly yelled at John Idzik after his injury. The guy who was once the undisputed starter couldn’t deal with the idea that he had to compete for his job. It’s understandable on some level given the dynamic even if it doesn’t come off well.
It also created a potentially bad dynamic. Sanchez undoubtedly had people loyal to him in the locker room and the coaching staff. That’s what happens when you go on deep Playoff runs. You tend to bond. How would the Sanchez loyalists respond if they felt like their guy deserved to be playing and was the victim of his surroundings? Would the locker room divide if Geno hit a rough stretch, and Sanchez loyalists wanted their guy in? Having Sanchez around created these potential issues. Maybe they wouldn’t have come into play, but the potential was there. That’s why while I feel badly for Sanchez getting hurt and would never wish injury on a player, the fact these potential landmines were eliminated probably was not a bad thing for the 2013 Jets. I just wish it had come through a cut before preseason.
Sanchez is almost certainly a cut for the Jets this offseason. Doing so creates over $8 million in new salary cap space. Not cutting him means he costs over $13 million against the cap for a backup who might not be able to do the job anyway and coming off a serious injury to boot. The dynamics mentioned above about how Sanchez used to be the guy and still likely has loyalists should preclude the Jets from even considering bringing him back at a reduced rate. The Jets need to turn the page, and Sanchez needs a fresh start if he’s ever going to reinvent himself.
How will the Sanchez be remembered? I think there are two points to remember before we dive into that question.
Mark Sanchez was not the worst Draft pick in NFL history.
Mark Sanchez had some terrific moments, many of which came in critical spots.
With that said, Mark’s career with the Jets was an enormous disappointment, and trading up for him in 2009 was one of the biggest mistakes the Jets ever made. There were some very nice moments, but look at the entire package. It cost the Jets two picks to move up for him. The Jets spent around $50 million in cap space over five years. For that they got a 55% passer who threw for more interceptions than touchdowns and averaged 6.5 yards per throw. They got four Playoff wins, but no Super Bowls. The Playoff wins don’t point to a guy who dominated in the clutch either. He melted down in critical games in 2011 and 2012. Wins in the Wild Card and Divisional rounds aren’t legacy games for great quarterbacks anyway.
If I told you the Jets would pay that price for that kind of production and need a new quarterback five years later, there’s no way you would have traded up for Sanchez. There’s just no way to be happy with that kind of production.
Where does Mark Sanchez go from here? I think it depends on the situation. I could see a scenario where he goes to a team with a lot of playmakers who can turn his crazy throws into big gains and have a long career as a decent backup. I could also see a scenario where he never takes a regular season NFL snap again and is totally out of the league a year from now.
Over the years many things have been said to try and explain Mark Sanchez’s career. He’s clutch. His offensive line is killing him. He has been held back by terrible coordinators. He doesn’t have good receivers. He doesn’t care enough. He cares too much. He’s too much of a politician. He can’t lead because he wants to be everybody’s friend. He’s a great leader because he wants to be everybody’s friend. He works hard. He doesn’t work hard enough, and many more. Many of those statements are probably true on some level, even the seemingly mutually exclusive ones.
Ultimately I think about a principle called Occam’s Razor, the simplest explanation is often the correct one. In the case of Mark Sanchez, the simplest explanation for his career is that he isn’t that talented. The fact people point to a season in 2009 where he completed less than 54% of his passes and threw 12 touchdowns against 20 interceptions as one of his biggest successes tells the story. He doesn’t have a big arm. The huge rate at which his receivers at USC caught touchdowns with yards of separation hid his suspect decision making. He never had the mechanics to be accurate, and the receiver play again hid this. His flaws were never obvious because with so few college starts, there just wasn’t enough film to find the holes in his game that are now obvious. He might be a nice guy and a great teammate, but he wasn’t good enough as an NFL quarterback and certainly did not merit a top five selection. That’s really all that matters.