It was a warm August morning in 1983. The sky was powder blue and a few clouds ran pass patterns in the heavens above the Jets training camp at Hofstra University. A square-jawed young quarterback from UC-Davis—wearing a number 7 jersey—hurled a high arcing bomb down the right sideline to a streaking Wesley Walker. It dropped out of the sky as Walker accelerated. He caught it in stride and turned on his afterburners, leaving the cornerback in his vapor trail. As he burst into the end zone, the Jets fans rose to their feet and erupted in applause.
Having been ruthlessly critical of many of the draft picks exhibiting their questionable wares that morning—such as tight end Wes Howell, nose tackle John Walker, and running back Darrin Newbold—a group of young college men sitting in the bleachers raved about the rookie's arm strength and ability to throw the deep ball consistently like no Jets quarterback since Joe Namath.
They eventually noticed the beautiful blonde, only a few years their senior, sitting behind them in the bleachers and smiling at them. They turned to her in testosterone-induced wonderment, seeking an explanation for why she was beaming. "I'm Ken O'Brien's girlfriend..." she offered, "...and I agree."
O'Brien went on to two Pro Bowls and is one of the finer quarterbacks the Jets have had in their tortuous history. However, despite his strong arm, intelligence, accuracy, a talented offensive line anchored by Marvin Powell and Joe Fields, and weapons like Walker and Freeman McNeil at his disposal, O'Brien's success with the Jets was limited. He was unable to lead them very deep into the playoffs. The fault lay not in his arm but in his feet.
O'Brien's foot speed was sloth-like. Coupled with an intensity of focus downfield that sometimes left him slow to sense the pass rusher closing in on his blind side, he was frequently sacked and lost many fumbles. Despite intensive coaching and the application of creative agility drills designed by the NFL equivalent of Richard Simmons, watching him play quarterback against a team with a strong pass rush was like viewing a Hitchcock classic when you knew the murder was about to happen but the protagonist simply did not see it coming.
As a result, Jet fans bemoaned the fact that the Dolphins took Dan Marino three picks later. While Marino was also leaden of foot, he had the quickest release that pro football had ever seen, a keen pocket awareness, and a crafty slide step—all of which combined to make him one of the hardest quarterbacks in football to sack or pressure.
O'Brien was but one in a family tree of Jets quarterbacks with mobility issues. Joe Namath's multiple knee injuries lead him to resemble an arthritic stork during the second half of his Jets career, and an inviting target for carnivorous defenses. Richard Todd, whose relatively fleeting success spurred "Todd is God" banners hoisted by his followers, lacked elusiveness. Boomer Esiason was on the downside of his career when he arrived in Hempstead, and left his scrambling ability in Cincinnati. And Neil O'Donnell, who was signed after being unjustly credited with much of the Steelers' success in their 1996 Super Bowl run, had the mobility of a cigar store Indian. Chad Pennington, while competitive, smart and extremely accurate, had neither agility nor arm strength.
Other than Namath's brief reign leading to their lone championship in 1968, Jets fans have not had an elite quarterback to root for. They have longingly observed the careers of Marino with the Dolphins, Elway with the Broncos, Montana with the 49ers, Manning with the Colts and Brady with the Pats.
Even second tier stars such as Danny White, Mark Brunell, or Jim Zorn would have been relative heroes if they had played in the green and white. As Charles Dickens wrote about Jet fans in his classic novel, Great Expectations, "We were always more or less miserable, and most of our acquaintances were in the same condition."
And it often comes down to the feet, especially with the size, speed and quickness of today's NFL defenders. A quarterback's ability to read the defense, sense the rush and translate that information into foot movement is a quarterback's greatest asset. Having a cannon like Favre, Elway or Marino is a plus, but many top quarterbacks like Drew Brees and Peyton Manning rely more on reading, recognition and foot movement to find the open channel.
This is why, on draft day in 2009 when the Jets traded a bevy of players and picks to the Browns to move up to the fifth selection and pick Mark Sanchez from USC, I was intrigued by the commentary by Rex Ryan, the incoming Jets coach. As the Associated Press reported, Ryan said, "We saw the great feet, the poise and how confident he was. Brian [Schottenheimer] put him through every workout known to man and he passed every one of them with flying colors. We knew, I think right then, that this was the guy we really wanted."
The transition from USC to the Jets was not easy for Sanchez. He was stuck behind Heisman Trophy winner, Matt Leinart at USC, and he only played one full year before foregoing his final senior year to declare for the NFL draft. Further, while his arm is reasonably strong, it is not a howitzer and he appears somewhat shorter than his listed height of 6'2". There were also questions about whether his lanky physique could stand up to the pounding of the NFL.
Through an uneven rookie regular-season, Sanchez flashed both inconsistency and promise. He displayed competitive fire, a commanding pocket presence for a rookie, and, yes, nimble footwork and an awareness of the rush. Many of his best plays and throws came when he slid one way or the other, finding a seam in the wall of bodies and arms to throw a spiral to an open receiver.
On the other hand, he was somewhat mistake prone. At times, he appeared to wish to pull back on a string a pass that he had just released that was destined for an interception the moment it left his fingers. At times, he lost his composure on the sideline and exhibited the slouch of a college kid who was disappointed that the homecoming queen decided to stick with her boyfriend.
However, after going through a very rough patch in mid-season, he started putting his game together later in the year. He played with outstanding confidence and cachet during a remarkable playoff run that saw the Jets advance past the Bengals and Chargers and into the AFC Conference Championship Game against Peyton Manning and the Colts.
Sanchez had the Jets less than one half from the Super Bowl and the loss was not due to a poor showing on his part. After a dismal 2010 season opener against Baltimore, in which he appeared stifled by a short leash, Offensive Coordinator Schottenheimer loosened up the reins so that Sanchez now has more opportunities to throw the ball downfield. As a result, he is off to an excellent start with nine touchdowns and only two interceptions.
While he has been the beneficiary of a few dropped picks, one can see the steady progress in terms of his ability to read defenses, put himself in the right position to make plays, and hit receivers on the run. He also has shown a savvy ability to trust his receivers, such as Santonio Holmes, to make plays for him. This was evidenced in the winning drive against the Broncos.
Heading into a showdown against the Green Bay Packers, with the Jets sporting a 5-1 record, Sanchez is beginning to realize his promise at the right time. However, as the saying goes, potential means that one has accomplished nothing yet. No one can predict, at this point, where Sanchez will ultimately stand at the end of his Jets career.
He is clearly not a Browning Nagle or Glenn Foley, who were flavors of the moment. Will he fit somewhere between Ken O'Brien and Joe Namath—or instead between Matt Robinson and Pat Ryan? With anticipation building each time those magical feet move Sanchez into prime throwing position, Jet fans exude an excitement not seen in many years—perhaps since that hot August morning in 1983 when a Cal-Davis rookie filled the Long Island sky with tight spirals. And if he lives up to the great expectations of Jets fans, somewhere out there, a handful of slow-footed, middle-aged men who wear vintage Ken O'Brien jerseys on Sundays will be smiling.