Jets' Sanchez among young QBs playing well; old guys keep up, too
The NFL is lucky to have so many neophyte QBs playing so well so early
Three older quarterbacks are playing well too: Brees, Warner, Favre
Baltimore moves to the top of the Fine 15; Goat of the Week, more
Football Insiders: Check out Stewart Mandel's College Football Overtime.
NEW YORK -- "What's up, Franchise?''
That's how Jets coach Rex Ryan greeted Mark Sanchez at the Jets' training complex in New Jersey the other day. It's not a rare thing. "That'd be taboo for a lot of coaches to say to a player, obviously,'' Sanchez said late Sunday afternoon, soaking in the biggest win of his, oh, eight-day pro playing career. "It's the elephant in the room, but coach Ryan just goes ahead and talks about the elephant. I like that.''
"I honestly don't think this kid knows he's the quarterback of a New York football team,'' said teammate Kerry Rhodes. "He's so cool.''
Rhodes is not alone. What struck me about Sunday's games -- about the first two weeks, in fact -- is how lucky the NFL is to have so many neophyte quarterbacks playing so well so early in their careers. Twenty of the 30 quarterbacks who played Sunday entered the league in the past six years. I'm not sure if that's any sort of record, but I do think it's surprising that two-thirds of the quarterbacks we saw Sunday are in their 20s.
The quarterbacks in the last two drafts have been exceedingly precocious. Sanchez, drafted fifth overall last April, was 14 of 22 for 163 yards and a touchdown in the 16-9 win over New England. What made his performance more surprising was his poise. Watching him in the NBC studios, Rodney Harrison and Tony Dungy kept remarking, as Rhodes did, on Sanchez's presence and how he looked nothing like a kid playing his second game. Though he didn't fare as well as Sanchez, Detroit's Matthew Stafford, 21, showed flashes of why the Lions made him the first pick in the draft in leading Detroit to a 10-0 lead before falling 27-13. And the twin 24-year-olds taken in the first round last season -- Matt Ryan of Atlanta and Baltimore's Joe Flacco -- combined to complete 72 percent of their throws in two wins on Sunday.
I count six passers 25 or younger -- Ryan, Flacco, Sanchez, Stafford, Trent Edwards of Buffalo and Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers -- as players with exceedingly bright futures. Ten years ago, the only sure thing under 25 was Peyton Manning ... and the draft class of 1999 (Tim Couch, Akili Smith, Donovan McNabb, Daunte Culpepper, Cade McNown, Shaun King) was on track to be awful, even with McNabb and Culpepper in it.
I can think of a few reasons. Colleges are a better incubator for pro quarterbacks today, in part because they're playing more pro-style spread schemes (and the NFL is copying some college spread stuff too); the NFL is using more shotgun snaps too, and that allows young passers to see the field more clearly on passing downs. There's also been a lot of cross-pollination between college and pro football recently.
Bill Belichick visits Urban Meyer at Florida every year to see what's new in his offensive laboratory. Lane Kiffin went from USC to the Raiders to Tennessee; Norm Chow from USC to the Tennessee Titans back to UCLA. The Wildcat formation, born at Arkansas to a smart offensive coach, David Lee, migrated to the NFL when Lee joined the Miami Dolphins staff in 2008. Now most teams use some form of the option play.
Plus, several of the young players seem so much more able to handle the rigors of the job at a young age. Last year, I'll never forget the scene at Baltimore training camp when Flacco, a rookie, went to the line to call signals and watched and listened for four or five seconds while several defensive players on the Ravens, most notably Ray Lewis, pointed and shouted out signals and defensive code words. Flacco waited, as if to say, "Are you finally finished?'' and then called his own play, completing a short pass. Matt Ryan studied how Peyton Manning and Tom Brady did their postgame press conferences; that's how prepared he was when he walked into the Falcons' locker room for the first time.
"Being at SC, in such a big program with such a good offensive attack, prepared me for this job well,'' Sanchez told me. "And just like SC prepared me for the football side of things, being in LA prepared me for the media side of it too. Here, on the field and off the field, everything is faster, but I feel like I'm ready for it. Like, Wednesday's my media day. I do a press conference, and the media guys here give me a list of everything I have to do, and I never feel overwhelmed.''
I said on NBC last night that Sanchez got a good piece of advice from Derek Jeter. "Don't read the headlines,'' Jeter told them when they met at Yankee Stadium this summer. Tiger Woods told him basically the same thing, and Sanchez hasn't. He didn't even know what all the hubbub over this game with the Patriots was until Rhodes apologized to him on Thursday for ratcheting up the pressure by saying the Jets were going to try to "embarrass'' the Patriots, not just beat them.
Aloud, I wondered to Sanchez whether his coach at USC, Pete Carroll, would still think Sanchez needed another year of college football after watching his first two weeks in the NFL. Sanchez has beaten two playoff contenders decisively -- Houston 24-7 and the Patriots by a touchdown. "That was his opinion, but it wasn't mine,'' said Sanchez. "We're fine. I feel like I've been able to adjust to everything -- the speed of the game, the demands on your time. The biggest thing everyone's told me, and they're right, is just, hey, don't try to do too much.''
Sanchez started slowly against New England, but, excluding a just-get-into-the-halftime-unscathed 17-second drive at the end of the first half, led scoring drives on four straight possessions -- starting in the second quarter. On the first play of the second half, from the Jet 44, he sent Jerricho Cotchery deep up the right side for a 45-yard gain; two plays later, he placed a perfect throw into the hands of tight end Dustin Keller for the game's only touchdown -- and what turned out to be the winning points.
All along, we figured Ryan would find a way to hold the opposition in the teens. That's his forte. He's actually doing better. New York has allowed just nine offensive points in eight quarters. The worry all along was how quickly Sanchez would come along. And he'll have his rocky moments. All young quarterbacks do, like the first play of the game, when a strip-sack resulted in a loss of 17 yards and put Sanchez back at his three-yard line. But time and again Sunday, he'd drop back, step nimbly out of any rush the Patriots threw at him (which wasn't much), and look very much like he belonged.
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