How Mark Sanchez Can Keep Jets' Starting QB Gig
While he may never be anything more than a middle-of-the-pack starter in the NFL, Sanchez has to get better in the play-action passing game, avoid costly turnovers and keep his cool under pressure to ensure the Jets are competitive when he's under center.
Ahead of his annual "Jets West" camp held in Southern California, Sanchez told Rich Cimini of ESPN New York that he fully plans on beating out second-round rookie Geno Smith for the starting job.
"When it's a straight-up competition for the job, let's roll. It really doesn't bother me at all. It really doesn't affect my confidence or anything like that. We're competing for something. All right, I'm going to win. That's just how I am," Sanchez said.
You wouldn't expect a competitor—even one as heavily criticized as Sanchez—to say anything else. He wants to play, and to play, he needs to win the quarterback competition that is defining the Jets' offseason.
His primary competition is a young, promising prospect whom the Jets selected in the second round of April's draft.
Smith, whom some rated as the top quarterback in the 2013 NFL draft, fell to the Jets at No. 39 overall. Still, teams don't draft quarterbacks in the second round to be career backups; eventually, Smith is going to be the starter in New York.
The question in the short term is when that will be. Sanchez, a former Top Five pick who has failed to live up to his draft status over four years with the Jets, might have one last chance to prove he can be an effective starter in New York.
He certainly has his work cut out for him. Years of bad decision making and a lengthy reel of bloopers has sapped Sanchez of the trust of the fanbase, coaching staff and front office.
However, competition often promotes a commitment to excellence, and it's now on Sanchez to make good on his final opportunity with the Jets.
Here's a blueprint for how the embattled quarterback can hold on to his starting job with the Jets in 2013.
Play-Action Passing Game
For Sanchez to survive as an NFL starting quarterback, he must get better as a play-action passer. He simply doesn't have the natural arm talent or mental mastery of defenses to beat the opposition without the help of play-action.
In 2012, Sanchez was poor in such situations.
According to Ron Jaworski of ESPN (via ESPN New York), nine of Sanchez's 18 interceptions came via play-action. No quarterback threw more.
In fact, advanced metrics show Sanchez to be the worst quarterback in the NFL off play-action last season.
Per Pro Football Focus (subscription needed), Sanchez had an NFL-low 49.4 passer rating on 73 attempts off play-action in 2012. He completed passes at a slightly higher rate in play-action formations (56.2 percent) as opposed to regular drop-backs (53.9), but his passer rating without play-action was a full 23.1 points higher.
This is the opposite of what you'd expect from an NFL quarterback.
For example, Miami Dolphins rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill finished with a passer rating of 121.2 off play-action in 2012 and just 67.7 without it.
Overall, 18 of the 27 qualified quarterbacks finished with a higher passer rating off play-action than not. No quarterback had a wider discrepancy between the two than Sanchez.
However, there's hope that such underwhelming results off play-action could improve for Sanchez in 2013.
The Jets acquired running back Chris Ivory from the New Orleans Saints, and he'll be expected to assume a lead role in the running game. A tough and talented back like Ivory could make play-action a more effective overall weapon for the Jets.
At the very least, the Jets will expect their rushing numbers to increase.
New York ran the football the sixth-most times in 2012, but the offense's rushing average of 3.8 ranked just 23rd. In 2010, when the Jets went 11-5, the offense finished fourth in rushing yards (2,374) and eighth in rushing average (4.4 yards).
With a strong running game at his disposal in '10, Sanchez was able to pick his spots and limit the dangerous throws. He finished with just 13 interceptions (career-best 2.6 interception percentage) and a 75.3 passer rating. While not solely responsible for winning games, Sanchez also wasn't a primary factor in losing them, either.
The Jets need to return to that kind of offense next season.
Sanchez's arm will never be confused with Aaron Rodgers'. His understanding of defenses will never be compared to Peyton Manning. But considering the physical and mental tools he does possess, Sanchez absolutely has to be a master of the play-action passing game.
He won't be anything other than an expensive backup without substantial growth in that area next season.
Turnovers, Turnovers, Turnovers
NFL teams can deal with turnovers from the quarterback position if the player brings other desirable traits to the table.
Michael Vick has received chance after chance as a starter because he's a special athlete with a big arm. Tony Romo throws head-scratching interceptions, but he also has the improvisational skills of a Brett Favre and a career passer rating above 95.0. Eli Manning is prone to his share of turnovers, but he also has two Super Bowl rings and a laundry list of big performances in the biggest games.
Sanchez simply doesn't have a trait that can overshadow his inability to avoid game-changing turnovers.
Over the last two seasons, Sanchez has a ridiculous 52 turnovers, or roughly 1.7 a game. In both 2011 and 2012, he gave away the football 26 times.
His interception percentage of 4.0 was the second-highest in 2012, trailing only Matt Cassel (4.3). And since 2009, only Manning (70) has thrown more total interceptions than Sanchez's 69.
Fixing such a problem doesn't have an easy solution.
Sanchez obviously needs to protect the football better, but he's also dealt with limited offensive weapons, a declining defense and constantly having to overcome deficits on the scoreboard. The Jets—as a whole—need to progress in each area to help reduce the chance of turnovers.
However, the buck still stops with Sanchez.
Decision making when throwing the football and securing it while in and out of the pocket are important factors in limiting turnovers. Sanchez needs to be better in both.
If there's any one element that will keep Sanchez on the bench next season, it's another influx of turnovers. He's earned his short leash with a career of bad decisions with the football. He can earn another chance by reversing that trend in 2013.
Dealing with Pressure
Pressure is a fact of life for NFL quarterbacks. There's internal pressure, media pressure, pressure from the fans and actual pressure in the form of oncoming defensive linemen.
Somehow, Sanchez's confidence remains intact. He's also calm and collected with the media.
But football pressure? That's a different story.
Pro Football Focus has been registering quarterback performance under pressure (subscription required) since 2008, a year before Sanchez entered in the NFL. Since 2009, Sanchez has ranked dead last among qualifying quarterbacks in three of the four seasons.
During his rookie season, in which he faced the third-least amount of pressure per snap among qualifying quarterbacks, Sanchez threw zero touchdowns and six interceptions against pressure. That can be expected of a rookie quarterback, but he hasn't shown any signs of development in the three years since.
In fact, one could argue he's regressed in these situations over time.
From 2010-12, Sanchez tossed eight touchdowns against 13 interceptions when pressured. His completion percentage of 37.6 ranks as the worst among starting quarterbacks, and he finished last in PFF's statistical rankings in each season.
Quarterbacks with as much experience as Sanchez must be better when facing pressure. It's a part of the game that isn't going anywhere, as more and more defenses are constructed to disrupt offenses by pressuring the quarterback.
Also, pressure often comes during the game's most important plays—third down, in the red zone, etc.
To keep his job, Sanchez must show an improved ability to deal with a league predicated on pressure.
The Jets won't get anywhere in today's NFL with a quarterback who struggles so mightily in such critical situations.
Will Mark Sanchez be the Jets starting QB in Week 1?
No matter how ridiculous it may sound on the surface, no one can blame Sanchez for his confidence in winning the starting job for the Jets. He's a competitor—an athlete. These types of individuals should expect to emerge victorious from the heat of battle.
However, Sanchez has a long road ahead of him to prove this isn't just another case of a delusional professional athlete without a grip on reality.
The Jets don't know what they have in their new second-round quarterback, but they do have a good idea what Sanchez brings to the table. He now needs to show marked improvement in three of the biggest areas of quarterback play—working out of the play-action, avoiding turnovers and handling pressure—to keep Smith on the bench in his first season.
If such improvements aren't evident early on, Sanchez will, at some point, become the league's most expensive backup quarterback in 2013.
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