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He’s green no more

Sanchez settles in as Jets QB

After having an up-and-down rookie season, quarterback Mark Sanchez has made great strides running the Jets offense. After having an up-and-down rookie season, quarterback Mark Sanchez has made great strides running the Jets offense. (Julio Cortez/Associated Press)
By John Powers
Globe Staff / January 16, 2011

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FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — The crossroads moment came with 29 seconds to play in Indianapolis last weekend and his team trailing by 2 points with the season on the line. What did the quarterback want to do on second-and-8 on the Colts’ 32-yard line?

“I gave Mark a play and he was like, ‘Ah, well,’ ’’ recalls offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. “I said, ‘So, what do you want to call?’ And he said, ‘Well, what about this?’ I said, ‘Hey, call what you want to call.’ ’’

What Mark Sanchez wanted was a pass to Braylon Edwards down the right sideline. If the ball was picked off, Peyton Manning would come out for a ritual genuflection and the Jets’ season would be finished.

But Sanchez made the connection for a first down at the 14, Nick Folk booted the winning field goal as the clock ran out and New York earned a rematch with the Patriots in this afternoon’s divisional playoff at Gillette Stadium.

“When Schotty let him call that play, it was on the money — and the rest is history,’’ says back Shonn Greene, who was expecting a running play.

Although he could have made that pass a year ago, Sanchez mused, he couldn’t have made that call. Not as a rookie who’d left college a year early and still was trying to learn the playbook and the players. This year, he knows both by heart and it’s a big reason the Jets are still playing.

“Growing up in this offense, understanding the personnel we have on the field and what plays fit specific personnel,’’ says Sanchez, who already has won more playoff games (three) than any quarterback in franchise history. “And having a couple of plays in the grab bag just in case. Emergency plays that if the headset goes out, if something goes wrong, if we don’t get the call in quite right we can make something up and go on the fly.

“I wouldn’t have been able to do that last year. Doing all the studying in the offseason and getting comfortable with Jerricho [Cotchery] and Santonio [Holmes] and Braylon. That’s what happens. You grow up and you play more games.’’

By now Sanchez has nearly three dozen on his résumé and has dealt with a smorgasbord of situations. On consecutive weeks he rallied his mates to overtime victories at Detroit and Cleveland. He produced a victory in the final 10 seconds against Houston after the Jets had blown a 16-point lead in the fourth quarter. His rating has ranged from 124.3 (Patriots I) to 27.8 (Patriots II).

It’s all part of the education of a quarterback who was handed the starting job without an apprenticeship when he left Southern Cal early against the advice of coach Pete Carroll, who warned that the facts were against Sanchez succeeding.

“You saw him play well in big games like Penn State, but that’s the big mystery with quarterbacks,’’ says Schottenheimer. “That’s why you hit on some and miss on others. You just don’t know how they’re going to respond.’’

The Jets had made a huge bet on Sanchez, trading three veterans and their first two draft picks to Cleveland for the privilege of selecting someone who’d started only one full season in college, then handing him $50 million over five years before he’d even taken a snap.

“He’s our poster child,’’ nose tackle Kris Jenkins declared in camp. “He has to be the face for us.’’

No rookie quarterback had started an opener for New York since 1960 and Sanchez felt an obligation to do everything himself and do it perfectly. What he since has learned is that he has a competent supporting cast that is paid to perform and is happy to do it.

“What Mark’s allowed himself to do this year is realize that he has guys who can help take the pressure off him,’’ says Edwards. “He doesn’t have to bear the weight of the world on his shoulders. He’s got veterans on the team that can help him do that. He has guys on offense who can help him make plays. Just give us a chance and we’ll make it better for you. That’s the biggest thing I’ve seen him do this year, is rely on us more.’’

If Sanchez felt compelled to be Mr. Everything last season, it may have been because he wasn’t sure what his linemen, receivers, and backs could do. Now, he is.

“It’s leaps and bounds from where he was before,’’ says center Nick Mangold. “He’s always had great confidence in his abilities. He knows that he can get the job done but knowing the plays, knowing what everyone’s doing, that’s got him into a much better leadership role because he can say hey, I need you do this for me.’’

Another season’s worth of exposure to the Jets’ offensive philosophy and system has made Sanchez decidedly more comfortable running it.

“Mark’s the kind of guy, he doesn’t want to call his own plays,’’ says Schottenheimer. “He’s not at that point yet. But there are certain situations where he feels really good about a call.

“Every Friday we talk about plays he likes and doesn’t like so we have a hit list that makes it easier for me to call the plays.’’

If they go awry, Sanchez has become noticeably better about shrugging them off and moving on.

“The biggest difference is his demeanor in the huddle,’’ says tight end Dustin Keller. “Last year if Mark threw an interception his head would kind of drop and he’d let it affect the next play.

“Now, he lets things go a lot easier. That’s what you want to see in a quarterback. The same guy every single play, always keeping his composure.’’

Developing the memory of a mayfly has helped.

“Good or bad,’’ Sanchez says. “Throw five touchdowns in the first half and you’ve got to come back and it’s 0-0. It’s got to be so clichéd to say stuff like that, but it’s really true.’’

Some of his biggest moments this season have come shortly after interceptions. In Cleveland, after Sanchez was picked off on the Browns 3 in overtime, he hit Holmes for the winning 37-yard touchdown on the first play of the next series. A week later, after another interception gave Houston a chip-shot field goal and a 27-23 lead with 55 seconds to play in the Meadowlands, Sanchez hit four straight passes in 45 seconds, including a 42-yarder to Edwards that set up the winner to Holmes.

“You can’t change what you’re doing because you’re not playing well,’’ Sanchez says. “You never lose your confidence. Even if you miss 10 in a row, that No. 11 is going to be a strike and you’ve just got to know that.’’

Last week at Indianapolis, Sanchez had a brutal first half with nine completions in 19 attempts and an interception just before halftime, but managed to shake it off.

“There was no way I was going to let it snowball and eventually avalanche,’’ he says. “I just wanted to come back, be real smart, take care of the football and no more stupid decisions, especially in the red zone. Let the running game work for us, get completions and build on that. And when it comes time to make a play, you’ve just got to make a play.’’

After Adam Vinatieri drilled a 50-yard field goal to put the Colts up 16-14 with 53 seconds remaining, Sanchez had no room for error. But once Antonio Cromartie brought the kickoff back to the New York 46, he knew he had a shot.

“Mark did a fantastic job of staying calm, staying cool under the pressure,’’ says Mangold. “He came out there and said, hey, we had a great return by Cro. We just need to go down and get a couple of plays, kick a field goal and get out of here.’’

What Sanchez wanted was another shot at Edwards, whom he’d missed on what would have been the game-breaker in the previous series.

“He’s wide open,’’ Sanchez says. “He scores, he runs out of the stadium, I take a knee and the game’s over. That’s a killer.’’

This time Sanchez made the hookup and the Jets exorcised a blue demon.

“It speaks volumes to how he’s grown up,’’ observes Schottenheimer.

That was the Sanchez the Jets had seen at USC, the gunslinger who just kept firing.

“Only special guys have that kind of characteristic,’’ says coach Rex Ryan. “He’s got that competitiveness. You never think you’re out of a game with Mark as your quarterback.

“You can say the same thing about Tom Brady, about Peyton Manning, about Drew Brees. I’m not putting him in that class right now, but time will tell. I think eventually he’ll belong in that group.’’

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.

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