After a recent practice, the Jets flow into the locker room, looking loose and joshing around: If they are not going to be world-beaters this year, then no one has told them yet. They’ve returned from Cortland and are back in their first-class digs in New Jersey. As the players change out of uniform, the press mills into the locker room, scanning for interviews, before inevitably coagulating around Mark Sanchez.
In Sanchez’s locker, there’s a Jet-green stickie note with a Namath quote—“What you should feel is that you’re better than anyone out there”—next to a bottle of Bed Head Control Freak hair gel, which his teammates kiddingly call his “Jheri-curl juice.” Sanchez is matinee-idol handsome and the obvious face of the franchise (the “Sanchize,” some have nicknamed him), and he stepped out a bit this past off-season, being linked in the gossip pages to Jamie-Lynn Sigler and showing up, looking dapper, at the Tonys. (That’s right—not the Espys, the Tonys.) He attended a boxing match in Vegas last spring, and other celebrities were jockeying to meet him.
Johnson lobbied for his G.M. to trade up in the 2008 draft to grab Sanchez with the team’s first-round pick, and, as with Ryan, Johnson’s enamored of the young QB’s comfort in his own skin. When they were considering Sanchez, Johnson and his coaches flew out to California to take him to dinner. “He’s talking to me and he’s so comfortable,” says Johnson, as though recalling a successful date. After the dinner, in the parking lot, Sanchez said his good-byes, then headed straight to a motorcycle and slung his leg over the saddle. The coaches and Johnson looked on aghast. No one wants their star quarterback traveling via motorbike. But it wasn’t his motorcycle. “Just kidding!” Sanchez said.
In the locker room, Sanchez handles the usual football questions with the usual measured answers. He’s getting better at this part, at least. There is enormous pressure on him this season; last year, he came in as a highly touted rookie, but with little expectation of immediate success. This year, it’s Super Bowl or bust. And most observers agree that if it’s bust, it’s Sanchez who will bear the blame. Last year, he had several terrible games, including one in which he threw five interceptions. But in the playoffs, he blossomed, running a tight, disciplined, if conservative, offense. This seemed promising—except that, this preseason, the offense has skidded again. There is not much margin for error this year, as the team opens with a tough schedule. The Jets meet the Ravens (Ryan’s old team) in a Week One Monday-night game. Next up: Belichick’s squad. “You better believe the Patriots have that circled” on the schedule, says Rodney Harrison, an ex-Patriot.
Simply put, given their schedule, the team the whole world is talking about could easily start the season 1 and 4. The Football Outsiders Almanac, an annual breakdown of football statistics, projects the Jets will win ten games this season, which should be good enough to make the playoffs. After that, who knows? As the Almanac points out, the 2009 Jets were aided by unusual good fortune. In the Jets’ two upset playoff wins, opposing placekickers missed five straight field goals—the odds of which the Almanac calculates at 5,292 to 1.
Last year, the Jets proved everyone wrong. This season they have to prove everyone right. At the end of the question session, one reporter tells Sanchez that a game photo of him and center Nick Mangold will appear that week on the cover of Sports Illustrated. The young quarterback considers this, seemingly not quite sure how to react. Then he flashes his surfer’s smile, nods his head, and says simply, “Really? That’s cool for Nick. Cool. Cool.” It’s the only way he can answer, really. He knows he’s supposed to earn the spotlight, yet the spotlight is already his. Now he’s got to prove he belongs there. In that way, he’s the embodiment of the Jets.