Sometimes, it is easy to forget that Mark Sanchez is in his third year as a starting quarterback in the NFL.
There are the times like last year in training camp session when the Jets returned to Florham Park, N.J. after two weeks in upstate New York. The Jets offense was set to run some drills when Sanchez — standing behind offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, who was acting as center during the drill — pulled down the shorts of the man who calls his plays. There stood Schottenheimer, ball still ready to snap to Sanchez, with his green shorts emblazoned with a Jets logo down at his knees. Schottenheimer froze for a moment, unsure of what exactly had transpired and with a look of disbelief that someone on his offense had exposed his boxers with several thousand fans looking on.
Sanchez walked away with a huge grin visible underneath the facemask of his helmet. The wide receivers and running backs hooted, hollered and laughed their approval at Sanchez’s hijinx. Cameras flashed as Schottenheimer made adjustments following his wardrobe malfunction.
Jets fans, meet one of your captains for the 2011 season.
On Wednesday afternoon during a conference call with the team’s beat reporters, head coach Rex Ryan named the 24-year-old quarterback his offensive captain. It was a bit of a surprise move from Ryan to name a quarterback so young to a leadership role on a team with Super Bowl ambitions. This isn’t a team rebuilding or in transition, the Jets are a veteran team with plenty of proven leaders. But Ryan said the players’ response to Sanchez the previous two seasons made it a natural move.
“I see the way the guys are around him. This is really going to be his team,” Ryan said. “I’m not big on giving out those captain [titles], the hockey-type things, even though I was a huge hockey fan as we all know, but we will put the “C” on his jersey this year because he truly is our captain.”
From the moment he was taken with the No. 5 pick in the 2009 NFL Draft, Sanchez has become the face of this franchise. During his rookie season his teammates tagged him with the nickname “The Sanchise.” Orchestrating a playoff run with some gutsy performances his rookie season, a series of late-game heroics in his second year and then this past January’s postseason push to a second consecutive AFC Championship Game ensures that Sanchez is more than just a marketing face to plaster on billboards.
He is the leader of this team’s offense despite being a little more than three months shy of turning 25 years old.
His leadership style can be flamboyant, but is also quietly subtle. In the spring, Sanchez held a “Jets West” camp with the offensive skill position players in an effort to keep them sharp during the lockout. Then in June, over 40 players convened in Madison, N.J. at a local college as part of involuntary workouts put together in part by Sanchez.
“It can’t hurt, just those extra reps, throwing the ball around. Getting guys together just to see each other and hang out on-and off-the-field, is important,” Sanchez said. “Whether it’s from an X’s and O’s standpoint or a morale standpoint, and just a friendship/teammate standpoint, I think all of that stuff helps.”
Sanchez might still be that kid at heart, who pulls down the shorts of his offensive coordinator or jumps on the back of teammate Bart Scott and rides him around during offseason workouts, but underneath the “Dennis the Menace”grin of mischief lies a player who has earned his dues in three short years with the Jets. It might be easy to see Sanchez — wearing shorts and mismatched socks in December racing out of the locker room, late to an offense team meeting — as just a goofball and perhaps a player not yet seasoned enough to take on the role of being a captain.
Ryan and the coaching staff would disagree with that assessment.
“I’m really comfortable doing this now. Am I trying to drive up the jersey sales for Sanchez? Maybe that’s true,” Ryan said.“But I think seriously that he’s earned that and I’m excited to watch this young man grow.”
Follow Kristian Dyer on Twitter @KristianRDyer.