The pitches should be in the works by now, and on their way to producers before the new year. The disintegration of Mark Sanchez merits a full cinematic autopsy, a piece of story telling that looks beyond the cartoon strip of the Jets’ locker room. Only an independent filmmaker with existential chops could do justice to Sanchez, what went wrong in New York, and by extension, what goes right elsewhere.
The ideal project would examine parallel universes and carry the title “Being Ben Roethlisberger.’’
As the Jets announced that Monday’s demoralizing pratfalls against the Titans had cost Sanchez his starting job, the Steelers quarterback revealed that he had offered apologies all over the office for comments that registered as second-guessing calls by his offensive coordinator.
Roethlisberger has signaled discomfort more than once in his first season of following Todd Haley’s orders, but the mess of it won’t stick to him. Nothing really does, not like the barnacles that attach themselves to quarterbacks elsewhere.
Roethlisberger has two Super Bowl rings to keep him Teflon-coated and an array of stats that place him among the best in the game.
In his four years in the NFL, Sanchez’s performance has not approached Roethlisberger’s. His best seasons roughly match up with Roethlisberger’s worst. Sanchez recorded quarterback ratings of 75.3 in 2010 and 78.2 in 2011; Roethlisberger hit lows of 75.4 in 2006 and 80.1 in 2008, the season of the Steelers’ most recent Super Bowl win. Even in the worst years, Roethlisberger completed at least 59.7 percent of his passes; Sanchez has never topped 56.7.
But those numbers come dressed in team jerseys, complete with the Jets’ love of drama and the Steelers’ disdain for it. The stats can’t be isolated from each player’s environment, certainly not in the way that fielding-independent pitching attempts to measure performance in baseball. Although it has been quantifiably dissected with more sophistication in recent years, football still defies the greatest ambitions of the sabermetrics model.
Any attempt to determine how Roethlisberger and Sanchez would have performed in different towns requires more than units of measure. It needs a portal to another space and time, a nod to Sartre over Nate Silver.
The best guess here, halfway down the rabbit hole, is that Roethlisberger would have swooned more than Sanchez would have soared. It’s hard to imagine Big Ben coping with the Jets and their TMZ magnetism.
Just consider what Kris Jenkins, a former teammate of Sanchez’s, said on Showtime’s “Inside the NFL.’’
"What Sanchez has to take responsibility for is during the time that he could have gotten better he wanted to sit back," said Jenkins, in a transcript via the New York Post. "He wanted to pose for magazines, worry about his haircuts and do all of that stuff ... I'm just saying, from what I saw him do, it was a lot better than what it is now. But he coasted. They coddled him. That was what was going on."
Geez, a guy poses for GQ before he’s Tom Brady and no one will let it go.
The coddling theory has been in play for a while, exacerbated by the premature tendering of a lavish contract. But the salient point in Jenkins’ critique is that Sanchez regressed. We didn’t need to hear it, just as we didn’t need to read the quote posted on CBSSports.com from an anonymous player who said Sanchez had lost all his confidence and was playing scared. These guys just confirmed the obvious.
Sanchez should be held responsible, but the Jets failed to do their part, as well. Successful teams put players in a position to succeed. The Jets, in the Woody Johnson ownership era, prefer to have athletes pirouetting for the cameras and hope that when they’re done, the dizziness doesn’t linger till kickoff. They landed Brett Favre partly for that purpose. They got Tim Tebow for exactly that purpose. They hired Rex Ryan and golden-handcuffed themselves to Sanchez for that reason, to make a statement.
Beneath all the show, there was substance. Favre still had it in 2008. The Jets couldn’t get the best out of him. In Ryan’s first two years as head coach, he took the Jets (and Sanchez) to the AFC title game. Denver put Tebow in a position to succeed, and he did, in his own quirky way. The Jets acquired and shelved him, in ways unconscionably destructive to all concerned, including Sanchez.
Roethlisberger has posed for GQ, too, without blowback. He wore uncovered shoulder pads. He is seen as everything Sanchez is not -- fearless, dynamic, unyielding, the definition of football valor. His ability to extend plays carried over to his off-field behavior, which ran boorishly unchecked through a helmet-less motorcycle crash and one allegation of sexual assault, made through the civil courts. It took a second assault allegation, from a college student who said he trapped her in a Georgia bar’s bathroom, to bring him down and bring out the people willing to describe him as a dangerously entitled brat.
Roethlisberger’s reputation may never fully recover from the accusations or the four-game suspension handed down by commissioner Roger Goodell after reports out of Georgia made it appear that celebrity bought the quarterback a pass from the law. He was never charged.
Yet Roethlisberger has largely recovered, for whatever reason, including the possibility that being a dangerously entitled brat works for him.
The stolid history of the Steelers’ owners, the Rooney family, can’t be overlooked in his story. The Rooneys didn’t issue predictable, scripted responses to the Georgia allegations or to the ongoing reports that their quarterback had morphed into the ego that ate Pittsburgh. They said they would suspend him if the league did not, and in the end, they put their good name behind his.
Trust us, the Rooneys effectively said, we won’t let this continue. Very few franchise owners could pull that off, but the Rooneys have deep Pittsburgh roots, which allow them extensive influence over their small-market audience. They generate equilibrium and reject reactionary stunts. The Steelers’ head coach, Mike Tomlin, knows that he won’t be fired. Before him, Bill Cowher knew it. Before that, Chuck Noll knew it, from 1969 to 1991.
The Rooneys believe in vesting their coach with authority, so that no one is looking over a shoulder during a difficult patch, playing office politics instead of the game. All eyes remain on the ball.
So when Roethlisberger toured headquarters to offer up apologies for pondering aloud the limited no-huddle offense and tight-end absenteeism in Sunday’s loss to Dallas, his mea culpa reached all the way up to the owner’s office.
The second-guessing of Haley hints at a larger problem. Roethlisberger was very fond of Haley’s predecessor Bruce Arians, whose exit may have involved prodding from on high. Such meddling would represent a break in Steelers tradition and a snag in the longstanding security blanket covering everyone connected to the club.
But that resolution of that issue will tell us where Roethlisberger is headed. So far, he has been in football nirvana. If you believe he would be an elite quarterback anywhere, then by extension, he has created his own haven.
Steve Young would not agree. He has always said that a good quarterback will founder in the wrong system. He will look awful, and only a few souls will be wise enough to recognize the problem. Bill Walsh saw Young faltering in Tampa Bay and knew there was more there. He brought him to the 49ers, set him up as Joe Montana’s heir and for a spot in the Hall of Fame.
A comparable Sanchez transformation would be unthinkable. A year ago, his decline from serviceable to unbearable seemed unlikely. Then Tebow appeared, a magnifying glass applied to the Jets’ foolishness. It also makes Roethlisberger, even amid his round of mea culpas, seem very fortunate and protected.