The New York spotlight started shining on Mark Sanchez the day the Jets made him the face of the franchise.
There were inevitable comparisons to Joe Namath: the impressive talent, the GQ looks, a young quarterback in the big city trying to lift an organization hungry for a Super Bowl title. This was the guy Rex Ryan wanted, so badly the Jets traded way up to get him.
"It's going to be a blast," Sanchez said hours after he was drafted in April 2009. "And I am excited for these next few years."
Well, he might not have realized what he was in for.
Sanchez, now in his third season, has set career highs with 23 touchdown passes and five rushes for scores, but has been knocked for inconsistencies in his decision-making and overall play. He has been the target of lots of criticism as the Jets (8-6) head into their showdown Saturday with the rival Giants (7-7).
Sanchez should be better by now, some say. He's not an elite quarterback and might not ever be, other critics say. He heard the boos when he was introduced with the offense before a recent game, and insisted they didn't bother him. Sanchez has taken a more buttoned-up approach in interviews lately, saying he's focused only on the game ahead and winning.
While Namath embraced the attention and thrived — on the field and off — Sanchez is still learning how to deal with it all. He looks around at other New York-area athletes and appreciates the way both Derek Jeter and Eli Manning have handled being team leaders.
"I think Jeter has done a great job," Sanchez said of the Yankees' shortstop and captain. "He's one of the standout players in this town. He's been the captain of his team and had the most amount of pressure of anybody, very similar to a quarterback position. That's a great example."
Sanchez is a laid-back Southern California kid who experienced very few bad days in high school or college. After all, he rarely lost during his short time as a starter at USC. But, he has also seen that winning hasn't always eliminated the criticism, especially in New York. Manning still occasionally takes his lumps despite winning a Super Bowl a few years ago and putting the finishing touches on an impressive statistical season.
"For me, being younger than Eli, he's done a great job, as well," Sanchez said. "That's been somebody I've watched on the field and he's done a heck of a job for his team."
Sanchez and Manning have met a few times over the years, and don't know each other well, but have a mutual respect.
"He's very nice," Manning said. "A good kid and a good football player."
Sanchez called him "a great guy" and said he's "excited to see him having a great year."
Manning said during the summer that he thought of himself of being in the same class as Tom Brady, and Ryan said the Giants quarterback was "pretty darn good." Ryan also added that Sanchez was also "pretty darn good," and called his guy an elite quarterback.
"They're both excellent quarterbacks," Ryan said Tuesday. "There's no doubt about that."
Manning is having one of the best years of his career with 4,362 yards passing, 25 touchdowns and 15 interceptions.
"He's put this team on his back and you're talking about a guy that's playing at an elite level," Jets linebacker Bart Scott said. "I believe he is an elite quarterback, and you're talking about a guy that's won the Super Bowl."
Meanwhile, Sanchez's numbers this season haven't been as eye-popping as Manning's, but he's also having a career year. Sure, there's plenty of room for improvement, and he knows that. But, he also has four fourth-quarter comeback victories this season and has firmly established himself as a team leader — if going to the AFC championship game in his first two years hadn't already done that.
His teammates gush about his confidence in the huddle and how he has matured in three short seasons to be someone they believe in with the game on the line.
"Whatever the game brings your way, those situations happen," Sanchez said. "When they happen, I'm excited to be the guy with the football in my hand making decisions. That's kind of the way I've always been: Give me the ball, let's make something happen and try to win the game."
While Sanchez might have a long way before he lives up to those lofty Namath comparisons, he can shoot to be elite. Just like Manning.
"They're two different guys, and Eli's been around a lot longer," Jets backup quarterback Mark Brunell said. "I think time will tell and history will tell how their careers went, but we've got a pretty good quarterback over there who truly only is going to get better as the years go on. I'm excited to see that happen."