Everyone agrees that new Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez could be the next great New York superstar. Like a totem pole of glamorous-athlete attributes, he’s got the persona down already: drop-dead multicultural good looks (he’s Mexican-American) and beautiful girlfriends, à la Derek Jeter; a cocky but endearing demeanor on the field, like Walt Frazier; a media-savvy, camera-ready, cheerful vibe off the field, like Phil Simms.
And considering the contract the Jets gave him after selecting him as the fifth pick overall, out of USC, in the April NFL draft—a five-year deal that, with incentives, could be worth up to $60 million, the richest contract in team history—it’s little wonder that they’re leaning toward playing him immediately. In his first play from scrimmage in preseason, the Jets went for a bomb, and Sanchez threw a 48-yard strike. Coach Rex Ryan named him the team’s starter (for the next preseason game, at least). Sanchez’s hype train is speeding up, but if the Jets want to win this year, they need to make him extremely boring, posthaste.
The maxim that the quarterback matters most sinks a lot of NFL teams these days. They invest so much in the position that their teams turn into a poorly diversified portfolio. Organizations like the Houston Texans (David Carr) and the San Francisco 49ers (Alex Smith) set themselves back years by trying to build offenses around top-draft-pick QBs. And while once upon a time, highly drafted quarterbacks held clipboards and memorized playbooks for years before getting their big chance, there’s too much money wrapped up in these guys to keep them on the sidelines that long. The excitement over Sanchez revolves around the success last year of Atlanta and Baltimore, both of which made the playoffs with first-year quarterbacks. But it’s instructive to look at the way Baltimore, in particular, used its rookie, Joe Flacco. The Ravens emphasized running the ball and crushing other teams with their defense, leaving Flacco with the simpler chores of limiting turnovers and managing the clock. The Ravens attempted fewer passes than all but two other teams in the NFL.
While Matt Ryan was a little more dynamic for the Falcons, he’s the kind of once-in-ten-years smash success that a smart team can’t bet on replicating; Sanchez would be wise to aspire just to do as well as Flacco. And fortunately, the Jets’ new coach, Ryan, knows all this because he comes to them from … the Ravens, where he served as defensive coordinator. Fans should expect that Ryan will have Sanchez running the offense in dull, mistake-averse fashion, handing the ball off to Thomas Jones, throwing to receivers on quick six-yard out-patterns, letting the veterans and the defense do the heavy lifting, and only rarely unloading a deep pass to keep opponents on their toes. Even pre-Flacco, this was the Ravens’ preferred approach to the game—when they won the Super Bowl after the 2000 season, their quarterback was Trent Dilfer, who’s notorious as perhaps the least dynamic QB to ever win the title, although that’s partly due to his very undynamic name. The Ravens’ biggest stars have always been big-hitting defenders, like Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, and following their model will not only give the Jets their best chance to win now, it’ll make it less likely that Sanchez will be one of those burnouts who frustrate fans, alienate sports columnists, and get run out of town (like David Carr, now backing up Eli Manning).
Mark Sanchez is the most exciting thing to happen to New York Jets football since … well, since Brett Favre. So you see how far excitement gets you. He’s bright, attractive, shiny, and new, and the best thing he can do for himself, and his team, is to get all that gloss off as soon as possible.