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The Jets are not worried about Mark Sanchez. They are so not worried. They even seem to practice being not worried. On the very first pass of their first preseason game, Sanchez, the second-year quarterback whose performance might determine whether the Jets' season ends in Dallas (site of the Super Bowl) or in disappointment, threw an interception that Giants defensive back Antrel Rolle returned for a near touchdown. It was an imprudent decision—the intended receiver, LaDainian Tomlinson, was sandwiched between a linebacker and a safety—compounded by an inaccurate throw, slightly behind LT.
The play could not have been more ominous, since it was so reminiscent of the mistakes Sanchez made during the down parts of his up-and-down rookie season, when he threw 20 picks and 12 touchdown passes. But if any of his teammates were thinking the obvious, they were careful not to let on. They slapped him on the pads more than if he had thrown for an 80-yard score. "Just an exhibition game," backup quarterback Mark Brunell told him, more than once. Brunell didn't break into song, as he did when Sanchez threw a pick in a training camp scrimmage. "What's that Van Halen song?" Sanchez says. "He started singing it to me. 'I get up, and nothing gets me down ... You got to ro-o-oll with the punches... .' "
The song was Jump, by Van Halen, and the Jets would probably sign David Lee Roth to sing it if they thought it would help Sanchez navigate the season's rough patches more smoothly than he did as a rookie. They have tried to give him everything he needs to succeed, from new weapons like Tomlinson at running back and wideout Santonio Holmes to additional mentors like the 39-year-old Brunell.
But worry? The tough-talking, f-bombing Jets don't do worry. They will let others wonder about the obvious questions. Did Sanchez's gritty, intelligent performances in the postseason last year, when he helped propel the Jets to the AFC Championship Game, mark the blossoming of a young star? Or is he an erratic young QB who has been overhyped because he has more charisma than any New York quarterback since Joe Namath, dates women most of us only see on TV screens, and rode the coattails of a strong defense and running attack to within a game of the Super Bowl?
Maybe yes is the answer to both questions. Sanchez is a quarterback of some contradictions. He seems utterly confident, yet he tends to internalize his mistakes so much that as he sat morosely in front of his locker after a loss to the Bills last year, receiver Braylon Edwards told him, "Pick your head up. I don't want guys to see you like that." He's sophisticated enough to be a presenter at the Tony Awards but lowbrow enough that afterward he would have dined at Taco Bell. His dark good looks make him appear suave in photo shoots, but he's been known to ask his followers on Twitter which Disney movie he should rent for the evening. "Lion King? Aladdin? Jungle Book? Peter Pan? Help?!" he once tweeted.
"He can be goofy," says nosetackle Kris Jenkins. "He's one of those California surfer-type dudes."
But Sanchez is deadly serious about his responsibility. What the Jets are asking of him would be a heavy load on any 23-year-old's psyche. They merely want him to run the show for a Super Bowl contender in the league's toughest media market in front of fans who have been emotionally scarred because their team's most promising seasons always seem to end in heartbreak. No wonder Jets coach Rex Ryan tries to make the task sound less daunting. "We don't need him to be the second coming of Joe Namath," Ryan says. "We just need him to take the next step in his development, to build on the good things he did last season."
It would also help if Sanchez can drastically reduce the bad things he did, like the five interceptions he threw in that loss to Buffalo or the four he tossed when the Jets lost at New England. Games like those are why he ranked near the bottom of the league with a 63.0 quarterback rating (28th) and a 53.8 completion percentage (29th). Sanchez more than atoned in the playoffs, when he played efficiently (only one pick) in victories at Cincinnati and San Diego and made some star-caliber throws, including a perfectly tossed 80-yard touchdown bomb to Edwards in the AFC title-game loss to the Colts.
But he knows his overall performance last year makes him the wild card in the Jets' deck. He seems totally unintimidated by that; no one believes in Sanchez more than Sanchez. "I want the responsibility to make this thing work," he says. "I'm not going to shy away. Sophomore slump? Let's go. I'll show you. We want to get to the Super Bowl, and we need a quarterback who can get us there. I believe I am that quarterback."
There are plenty of signs that Sanchez is that quarterback. He does the things that leaders do, like paying the way for several of his receivers to join him for off-season passing workouts, dubbed Jets West, at his old high school in Mission Viejo, Calif., and putting in long hours of film study. He also has a feel for making just the right gesture. When Sanchez was invited to a state dinner at the White House in May, instead of taking a female companion, he brought his left tackle, D'Brickashaw Ferguson. When Tomlinson visited team headquarters as a free agent, Sanchez had a gift delivered, a piece of crystal with a Jets insignia. "It was a great touch, a way of him saying that they really wanted me here," Tomlinson says. "It told me a lot about the organization and a lot about him."