Mark Sanchez Establishing Himself as Quality Backup in Chip Kelly's System

Tyler Conway@jtylerconwayFeatured ColumnistAugust 22, 2014

Philadelphia Eagles' Mark Sanchez smiles as he warms up before an NFL preseason football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Thursday, Aug. 21, 2014, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Matt Rourke/Associated Press

Chip Kelly is not a football coach. He is a football pixie fairy sent to sprinkle offensive goodness across the world. Or a regular man who ran into a genie and used his three wishes to absorb all the offensive knowledge in the world. Or an offensive demigod. Or maybe he's God reincarnated.

I have no idea. All I do know is the man who has done what Kelly has with Mark Sanchez this summer is not of this earth.

Sanchez, he of the "nearly replaced by Tim Tebow and run out of New York for Geno Smith" fame, was brilliant for a third straight preseason game in the Philadelphia Eagles' 31-21 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday night. Decisive and accurate with the ball, Sanchez completed seven of nine passes for 85 yards, spurring back-to-back touchdown drives in the third quarter.

More impressive than the two touchdowns, both of which were scored on one-yard Matthew Tucker runs, was how Sanchez did it. The former USC star carved up a Steelers squad comprised almost entirely of first-team defenders with a second-team bunch full of street free agents and shrug-worthy backups. He spread the ball around to his receivers, made the right reads and exhibited solid timing.

When Troy Polamalu is fuming on the sidelines, you know you're doing something right:

If that refrain sounds familiar, well, that's precisely because it is. Sanchez, who since his rookie season might be the single most derided quarterback in pro football, has been brilliant throughout the preseason. Including Thursday night's stats, he has completed 25 of 31 passes (80.7 percent) for 281 yards and two touchdowns against one interception.

Throw Sanchez and Nick Foles side by side, and there's been no comparison. Sanchez has been light years better than the guy who had the second-highest quarterback DVOA in football last season, via Football Outsiders, behind only Peyton Manning.

PHILADELPHIA, PA - AUGUST 21: Quarterback Mark Sanchez #3 of the Philadelphia Eagles looks to pass the ball against the Pittsburgh Steelers on August 21, 2014 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
Al Bello/Getty Images

Even if you're skeptical of preseason statistics—and good for you for not being an idiot—the reviews out of Eagles camp have been glowing. 

"I think Mark's been outstanding since he's been here," Kelly told reporters in July, before Sanchez even took a preseason snap. 

Kelly's confidence in Sanchez has seemingly rubbed off. Sanchez looks and sounds like an entirely different person than the one who entered New York Jets camp last season with Smith breathing down his neck. He's relaxed, more certain of himself and comfortable with his spot on the roster. He looks honestly relieved to have spent his last year in New York on the sideline recovering from an injury rather than being raked over the back-page coals.

As Sanchez told CBS Philly's Joseph Santoliquito:

You learn a lot about yourself in situations like that. During rehab, I got to spend a ton of time with people I was already close to and became closer. It was a great experience. I got to spend a ton of time with my family. I feel healthy and why not throw it the best I can. I do feel healthy. You put in the work and the dedication, it is a rewarding experience. I am having fun again.

Julio Cortez/Associated Press

Sanchez suffered a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder in the Jets' third preseason game last season. Inexplicably put into the game late in the fourth quarter, he took a season-ending shot from then-New York Giants defensive tackle Marvin Austin. With tensions already long simmering between quarterback and front office, the injury created a fissure that would never heal. Sanchez was heard screaming at Jets general manager John Idzik and kept a near radio silence the rest of the season.

The only screaming following Sanchez's third preseason game in Philly will be sports radio callers asking if the Eagles could deal him for a first-round pick. 

While that's a ridiculous suggestion, what the Eagles do seem to have is a valuable backup quarterback. Sanchez, playing in his fourth offensive system in six NFL seasons, hasn't looked better since he was wearing cardinal and gold. 

In New York, Sanchez was consistently indecisive in the pocket. He would double-clutch and screw up his rhythm, sense pressure that wasn't there and make terrible decision after terrible decision. The "butt fumble" was his most famous play with the Jets, but I more fondly remember the times he would drop back, see a guy coming open, second-guess himself just long enough for the window to close and then throw the ball anyway.

Kelly's system is great at limiting those mistakes. As with most offenses, there are contingencies built into every play call, rules and progressions that allow quarterbacks to know where they're going on most plays before the ball is snapped. But Kelly helps out his QBs by minimizing the number of decisions they have to make at the line.

Sanchez explained to reporters the brilliant simplicity of the offense the NFL is attempting to emulate in July:

You kind of just have to sit back and let the offense work for itself. There are so many things built into this thing so we can can play faster. A lot of these plays are all encompassing. It eliminates a lot of that chess match of 'we call this, they call that, and they beat us, so we head back to the huddle with our tail between our legs.' This stuff, you can do it against just about anything. It's fun, it's fast. The verbiage is pretty basic, but the fine details of this thing are pretty complex.

Sanchez seems to be having particular success attacking the seam. Backup tight end Trey Burton hauled in two passes for 37 yards against Pittsburgh, and he connected three times underneath with wideout Jeff Maehl.

After having the highest sack rate in football during his final season as the Jets starter, Sanchez has yet to go down this preseason. He's more comfortable trusting his pocket, even comfortably avoiding the rush in a couple of instances over the past two weeks to fire an accurate ball underneath. 

Matt Rourke/Associated Press

"Mark's a real quick thinker, he makes decisive decisions and is very athletic," Kelly told reporters. "When you watch him drop, he's got some pop in his feet when he gets on top of his drop and goes through his progressions and he gets the ball out quickly because he’s got a real quick release."

Of course, here is where one would begin Sanchiding us for buying into the Sanchize hype.

Sanchez was the worst starting quarterback in football the last time he was on the field during the regular season. He was an utter calamity, lacking the confidence, skill set or mental wherewithal to even approach adequacy. The NFL preseason does not count. It's a series of vanilla offenses going against vanilla defenses featuring more than 1,000 players who won't have jobs by next week. Our 68-game sample that says Sanchez is bad at football is much more meaningful than 31 preseason passes.

This is all true. And it's a fair argument. But five months after being roundly mocked for giving a broken-down Sanchez a shot, Kelly looks like he's molded him into an entirely different player.

Are any of you ready to start doubting our pixie-fairy, genie-having football demigod? I'm sure as hell not.


Follow Tyler Conway (@tylerconway22) on Twitter.