By Peter Richmond
These are the significant events of the calendar year thus far in 2013 for Mark Sanchez, the fifth pick in the first round of the 2009 NFL draft, shipped from the sunlight/spotlight of USC to bring luster to the drear of the Jersey Jets:
In April, he watched his team draft Geno Smith, who last year had passed for 656 yards and eight touchdowns … in one game. The seventh pick in Round 2. A pick that says, "You are a key component of our future … if not our present."
In August, buffeted by a media storm speculating about his future, Sanchez then heard his coach, defying all logic, tell him to go into the fourth quarter of an exhibition game against the Giants in which Smith had started, to be replaced by Matt Simms, a young man with good football genes enjoying a good preseason. In this game Simms had gone six-for-10 with a TD and, by all reason, should have finished out the game.
But for reasons known only to Rex Ryan, Sanchez took the field. Perhaps Rex figured that against third-stringers, Sanchez would post some numbers, and temporarily make us forget his dismal last few years, his third and fourth seasons, when real quarterbacks are supposed to show they've grown. Over those two years, Mark led the NFL -- in turnovers. Thirty-six by interception, 16 by fumble. Why would Rex want to bolster Sanchez' confidence? Got me. Then, three years ago, why did he get a shoulder tattoo of his wife wearing nothing but a Mark Sanchez jersey?
Then, a few days later, Mark saw a new face in the locker room, one Brady Quinn, who, after being released by Seattle despite a strong preseason, was reportedly recommended to Jets GM John Idzik by Seahawks GM John Schneider, with whom Idzik used to work in Seattle before coming East. Quinn's personal quarterback coach two years ago, when he was trying to regain some of his own lost luster? David Lee, currently the Jets' quarterback coach.
Then, last Thursday, Mark got to watch Simms complete 33 of 44 passes in a victory over the Eagles. Two days later, on cut-down day, the Jets kept all four quarterbacks. So, you read the tea leaves while I offer possible scenarios:
1) The Jets cut him and eat his $8.25 million guaranteed. 2) They trade him to a team in need of a turnover-prone backup who might settle down amid new scenery in a lower-profile town, agreeing to pick up most of the tab. 3) They keep him on the bench in the hopes that when Geno begins to throw picks by the cluster, as all rookies do when facing sophisticated defenses that are as readable as hieroglyphics, Sanchez, motivated, steps in and staunches the bleeding -- or even learns, finally, how to lead. Or not.
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Though I've never met him, I have always intensely disliked Mark Sanchez, ever since, in January of 2011, as a 24-year-old, he quite famously was reported to have slept with a girl whom he'd met at a nightclub. She was 17, and of legal age in the state of New York, and, as her brother's English teacher, I had last seen her two and a half years earlier, when, as a ninth-grader, she said, "Hi, Mr. Richmond!" to me in the hallway. I remember it clearly, because when her picture started going viral, she looked to me, despite all the added makeup, just like the 15-year-old in the hallway. Legal age does not certify that one is capable of making sound judgments.
Six months after the story broke, Rex Ryan named Sanchez a captain. Captains are supposed to possess several character attributes. Picking up high-school girls should not be among them. Last year, Ryan announced that the Jets would have no captains.
This year, as Smith readies to starter, and Quinn works out with mentor Lee, and Simms hovers in the shadows, it's really hard for me to admit it ... but I think we let Mark Sanchez down. And here's what helped fortify the thought: On the same morning that I read that Quinn had come in, a Facebook friend posted a video that's title suggested that if I didn't feel chills while watching it, I was clinically dead.
It featured an ABC TV segment, narrated by the breathlessly fawning Brent Musberger, of the Clemson football team running down the hill into Death Valley to the insane roars of 84,000 orange-clad Tiger freaks. The video has been watched thousands of times. When I watched it, I thought that, as they raced down the hill, every one of those football players must have felt like a god -- despite the obvious truth that they would eventually prove to be anything but. Because stats about graduation rates, and about how many of them will even a sniff of the NFL, suggest that many, if not most of them, will eventually be released into an everyday working world for which they will be far less prepared than their non-football classmates. Attending college as obvious members of a distinct, odd sect known to have been recruited simply for physical skills, and then having been discarded after they'd served their purpose, is hardly going to prepare them for success in a world full of college grads who actually experienced college.
But for that "25 greatest seconds in college football," as Brent termed it, they were gods -- as Mark Sanchez must have felt he'd been in the Coliseum, as he watched the Trojan warrior, astride Traveler, gallop around that grand coliseum, and basked in the cardinal-gold glow of the old bowl.
When the Jets traded up to get Sanchez, Pete Carroll opined that he wasn't ready for the NFL. He was right about that. But he also wasn't ready for life. Somewhere along the line, no one at USC had bothered to grow him up.
And then? He un-lucked out. He drew the worst hand he could have ever drawn: a coach who's clearly half a bubble off (a carpentry term, as in that bubble of air in a Level indicating that something's a little imbalanced). Instead of landing with a coach with a feel for educating young men, he'd been placed in the hands of the certifiably bizarre Rex, son of the certifiably bizarre Buddy, brother of the certifiably bizarre Rob. That would be the Rex Ryan who skipped the Jets' highly anticipated cut-down day to attend his son's game in … Clemson's Death Valley. Which is also sort of an apt metaphor for where Sanchez' career is heading.
And I should be exulting, but no … just finally seeing the truth: That if no one ever grew Mark Sanchez up, then of course he was dallying with a teenager, because psychologically, maybe he was her equal. Of course he'd party, and party, and party. Did we notice? Did we care? Why would we? As far as we were concerned, he was fine as promised … until, now, when he isn't.
I'm not giving Mark Sanchez a free ride here. As my wife likes to say, "You grew it? You chew it." Sanchez had ample opportunity to learn to grow, surrounded for four years by men in a league which, despite the headlines, is full of mature men. He could have stepped up and led, if not in action, then in attitude. That he failed to do so is his fault. But not his fault alone.
After this year wherein his career has taken to running a fade route all its own, I don't doubt Mark will grow up, having learned some lessons. I just hope we have.
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Peter Richmond has written for five newspapers, been featured in 14 anthologies and spent 13 years on staff at GQ. He has written about everything from sports to murder to movie stars to vasectomies, and has published six books, one a New York Times bestseller. His most recent, "Badasses," a history of the Oakland Raiders of the 1970s, has been released in paperback.