He was going to be the Joe Namath of the new millennium, the player to lead the New York Jets to their first Super Bowl in four decades.
Now, after three increasingly disastrous seasons, Sanchez has bottomed out, released by Gang Green and looking for work.
The work won't be too hard to find. A number of teams have already been linked to the 27-year-old, and ESPN's Chris Mortensen reported Monday that pending a physical, Sanchez is expected to sign with the Philadelphia Eagles:
Sanchez "failed physical" termination w Jets was protocol. Won't affect next step - signing with Eagles. He's on good recovery from surgery— Chris Mortensen (@mortreport) March 24, 2014
The question then becomes, will Sanchez do any better on his second NFL team than he did the first?
It wasn't supposed to be like this, of course. In fact, back when the Jets moved up to draft Sanchez fifth overall in 2009, Don Banks of Sports Illustrated hailed the move:
There are different levels of winners every year in the first round of the NFL Draft, but you can't convince me that anyone hit the grand slam of the day quite like the New York Jets did on Saturday.
The reason is simple: Mark Sanchez. The Jets started the day with disarray at quarterback, and ended it with a bright future at the game's most pivotal position. Sanchez, the Southern Cal star who was the most buzzed-about name in the draft in the past two weeks, is the passer who many personnel evaluators feel will make the best pro of any quarterback in the 2009 draft. And I agree.
For a time, it appeared Banks was going to be right. In each of Sanchez's first two seasons in the NFL, the Jets advanced to the AFC Championship game, and as Will Leitch of Sports on Earth pointed out, the Jets came extremely close to advancing to the Super Bowl:
No one remembers this now, but the zenith of the Mark Sanchez Experience, the time you thought he really might be what Jets fans and GQ wanted him to be, was the 2011 AFC Championship Game at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. The Steelers had taken a 24-0 lead, but Sanchez brought the Jets all the way back to a 24-19 deficit, throwing for 170 yards and two touchdowns in the second half. I know you won't believe this, but he was terrific, and all the Jets needed to do to give the hot Sanchez one more chance was to stop the Steelers on third down late heading into the two-minute warning. There wasn't a soul in that building who didn't think he was going to do it, either.
Think about what happens if he gets the chance, and pulls it off. He would have beaten Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger three consecutive weeks, in the playoffs, on the road. He would have set an all-time record for most road playoff victories with five. (He can still do this, I suppose. Maybe with the Rams?) And most of all, he would have brought the Jets, those lowly Jets, to the Super Bowl for the first time in more than 40 years. The Namath comparisons would have felt worthy. He could have survived 1,000 butt fumbles.
Of course, that didn't happen. Instead, Sanchez became enamored with the trappings of celebrity, appearing at times to be more concerned with red carpet appearances than studying game tape. By the time a disappointing 8-8 2011 season—in which Sanchez committed 26 turnovers—ended, the rumblings had started.
Maybe Mark Sanchez wasn't the franchise savior after all.
Per Pro Football Focus
From there, things continued spiraling downward. The Jets tried (and failed) to woo Peyton Manning prior to the 2012 season. Then they signed Sanchez to a three-year extension (with $20 million in guaranteed money). Then they traded for Tim Tebow.
The circus continued right into the season. In 2012, Sanchez once again had 26 giveaways, compared to only 13 touchdown passes. His passer rating and completion percentage were his worst since his rookie season.
Then Thanksgiving night rolled around, and this happened.
The "buttfumble" came to symbolize the entire dysfunctional mess that the Jets had become. It also all but marked the end of Sanchez's time with the team. After missing the entire 2013 season with an injured shoulder, the Jets acquired Michael Vick and Sanchez was shown the door.
From phenom to pariah in three seasons.
Mind you, a great deal of the blame for Sanchez's face plant rests with Sanchez himself. Whereas most young quarterbacks are expected to have their struggles early but gradually improve, Sanchez got steadily worse over time.
The more the Jets asked Sanchez to do, the worse he got at doing it, including some decisions with the football so god-awful they must be seen to be believed.
However, the Jets didn't exactly put Sanchez in the best position to thrive, either.
In 2010, the Jets ranked fourth in the NFL in rushing. In 2011, it dropped to 22nd. Personnel losses on defense put the Jets in a position where they had to score more points. The free-agent acquisition of wide receiver Santonio Holmes was an abject disaster.
How many games will Mark Sanchez start the rest of his NFL career?
When a quarterback and the situation around him are in a footrace to see which can disintegrate faster, the results on the field aren't going to be pretty.
Still, that isn't to say that at 27 years old, Sanchez is toast.
His days as a starter are probably over, at least for the foreseeable future, but in many ways that may be the best thing for him. Brave public face or no, his confidence has been run through a wood chipper in recent years, and it showed when we last saw Sanchez in action.
Even then, it makes a lot of sense for QB-needy teams like the Cleveland Browns and Jacksonville Jaguars to at least kick the tires. We are, after all, talking about a relatively young former top-five pick who could be had on the cheap.
Sanchez will probably land somewhere as a backup. It may well end up being in Philly behind Nick Foles. Jim Corbett of USA Today reports Jeff Fisher has interest in bringing Sanchez to the St. Louis Rams to back up Sam Bradford.
Manish Mehta of The New York Daily News tweeted those aren't the only teams interested in Sanchez:
I'm told Eagles have "edge" to sign Mark Sanchez, but "not a lock." Browns, Rams& Titans have also expressed real interest. #nyj— Manish Mehta (@MMehtaNYDN) March 24, 2014
A backup role could get Sanchez another bite at the proverbial apple in a year or two, provided a couple of caveats are met.
First, were Sanchez to see significant action in 2014, it needs to be on a team with something resembling a ground game and competent defense. When Sanchez had those in New York and played within himself, the result was four playoff wins, all on the road.
When he didn't? It wasn't pretty.
Most importantly, Sanchez has to cut down on the turnovers. There hasn't been a quarterback in NFL history good enough to overcome 52 turnovers in two seasons.
Assuming that Sanchez gets a chance to play this year, it's really that simple. Sanchez isn't ever going to be Manning or Brady, but in today's NFL, anyone resembling a competent quarterback is in high demand.
Look at Josh McCown, who went from a 33-year-old backup in Chicago last year to the presumptive starter in Tampa in 2014.
Granted, there are a lot of "what ifs" and "maybes" in play here, especially since Sanchez hasn't shown anything over the past few years to indicate a turnaround is in order.
There's still time though, and the Eagles wouldn't be a bad spot, so maybe, just maybe...
We haven't heard the last of ol' buttfumble just yet.