In actuality, the kid was already the toast of the evening before it even started.
The fifth-overall selection in April’s draft was welcomed by a vociferous ovation when his name was called after Kellen Clemens' night was over in the first quarter of Friday’s preseason opener.
Though the Jets fell short in a 23-20 loss to the St. Louis Rams, the rookie’s rousing debut instilled a sense of hope in the Gang Green universe.
“When I ran out, everyone was saying how loud it was and it seemed like (the stadium) was full,” said Sanchez, whose strong effort—not a meaningless loss—resonated with all in attendance. “I said I didn’t hear anything. I was just... making sure we had a good huddle. It was wonderful; I’m really appreciative.”
On his first NFL snap, Sanchez connected with David Clowney for a 48-yard completion along the right side of the field. From there, the 22-year-old Sanchez looked the part, the image of a quarterback better suited than Clemens to lead a winning club.
“I was stunned at the play call,” Sanchez said. “They wanted me to shoot three-pointers cold, but it was great. It’s just so exciting to be playing here.”
Sanchez continued to scan the field and unleash bullets that chronically punctured the vulnerable Rams’ secondary. The former Southern California standout hooked up with tight end Dustin Keller twice in his series, giving fans a glimpse of what could be a fruitful friendship on the offensive end.
The chains kept moving, as they do when things are going well on the field, and Sanchez eventually handed off to Thomas Jones on the goal line for a touchdown and 10-3 advantage at 3:20 of the second quarter.
What did coach Rex Ryan like about his new $50 million-dollar man?
“You name it—everything,” Ryan said on the field at halftime. “He has poise; he made great decisions mid-range and long range. He looked great.”
Sanchez completed 3-of-4 passes and racked up 88 yards, causing fans to quickly forget a ho-hum cameo from Clemens.
“You just take it in stride; I wasn’t the fifth pick in the draft,” Clemens said. “I came in hoping to challenge Chad Pennington for a job and now I’m doing it with Mark.”
A second-round pick in the 2006 draft, Clemens absorbed a hard hit from Leonard Little in his first series and lost a fumble at 2:42 of the first quarter. That gaffe paved the way for St. Louis to eventually claim a 3-0 lead on Josh Brown’s 48-yard field goal.
In his second and final set, Clemens looked much more comfortable and even connected with Keller on an impressive 12-yard completion after scrambling through a suffocating pocket.
Nevertheless, it appears Sanchez has clearly tipped the scales in his favor to start the regular-season opener in Houston on Sept. 13.
“We’re really making it tough for the coaches to decide on a starter,” Sanchez said. “That’s what we’re supposed to do.”
Clemens, who completed all four of his passes and recorded 24 yards, realizes his grasp on the outside chance of starting under center is slipping.
“Mark did a good job,” Clemens said. “He’s been doing a great job so far with fitting in. This is a friendly competition, but only one of us can play on Sundays.”
Clemens did a valiant job offsetting a depleted offensive line, ravaged by minor injuries to Damien Woody (head), Alan Faneca (broken finger) and center Nick Mangold (knee).
That, however, is not what the fans came to see. They flocked to East Rutherford to witness the beginning of something special.
Turns out, they got their money’s worth—even if it was for just one series.