PHILADELPHIA -- If the question of how Mark Sanchez would fare as the Eagles' new starting quarterback was the great unknown entering this week’s Monday Night Football matchup against the Panthers at Lincoln Financial Field, consider the mystery solved early on, and without a hint of real suspense at that.
You can exhale now, Philly fans. It’s going to be okay. Sanchez produced nary a butt fumble in his home-field regular-season debut at The Linc, a 45-21 demolition of the pathetic Carolina Panthers, and as it turns out, he can still play a pretty snazzy game of football when he’s not wearing Jets’ green and white. Eagles' green and white suits him just fine. As does Chip Kelly’s quarterback-friendly offense. Big surprise there.
If we learned anything from the Eagles' trouncing of the Panthers, it’s that Philly doesn't need Sanchez to carry it in the absence of injured starter Nick Foles, who’s out six to eight weeks with the broken collarbone he suffered in Week 9 in Houston. Kelly’s entire offense is the real star of the show these days, and Sanchez happens to be the fortunate triggerman who gets to make it go.
And go it did against the woefully overmatched Panthers, with the Eagles rolling up season-high totals in everything but sustained drama and competitiveness. It’s not exactly a "nothing to see here, move along" development for the Eagles to get such a seamless transition to their one-time backup quarterback, but it’s not breaking news either. Suffice to say Sanchez and the Eagles are going to do just fine together, thank you.
Because let’s face it: like wearing black for its slimming qualities, every quarterback looks better when he’s playing in Kelly’s version of fast-break football. It’s an offense designed to help quarterbacks find play-makers in open space and create mismatches all over the field. You don’t want to overstate the meaning of Sanchez torching a Carolina defense that looked as if didn’t want to be in Philadelphia to begin with, but the Eagles did get 332 yards passing and two touchdowns out of the ex-Jet with a whopping 11:43 left in the fourth quarter. At that point, the Eagles were leading 45-7 and another prime-time blowout was all but in the books.
“It was just a great night," said Sanchez, who finished 20 of 37 for 332 yards, with two touchdowns, no interceptions and a 102.5 passer rating. “It was so fun, so fun to get back out on the field. I’m very blessed and I thank God for the opportunity. It’s been a while. I’ve been out of it for a little bit, away from the game. So it’s good to get back, it’s good to get back in an environment like this, in front of this crowd and all these guys who work so hard during the week. It’s so fun to watch it pay off."
It’s not entirely clear how Sanchez would have fared against a quality opponent on Monday, rather than the Panthers and their very NFC South-like defense. But it’s also clear that he turned in a game that topped just about anything the turnover-happy Foles produced this season. The Eagles are in good hands with Sanchez, who never in five years with New York posted a 300-yard passing game without throwing an interception. He managed that in his first Eagles start.
"I mean, he’s a baller," said Eagles rookie receiver Jordan Matthews, who caught seven passes for a career-best 138 yards and both of Sanchez’s touchdown passes. “He’s a franchise quarterback. We are probably the only team in the NFL with two franchise quarterbacks. We’re very fortunate to have that. They both have been to big games, both played in the playoffs, so we’re lucky to have them. We saw him go out and be elite today."
In his first start since 2012, Sanchez was indeed sharp. But the reality is that the way these Eagles are playing on defense and special teams this season, the quarterback -- no matter who it is -- doesn’t have to do it all by himself. In the first half alone against Carolina, Philadelphia notched a special teams touchdown (Darren Sproles’ 65-yard punt return), a defensive touchdown (Bradley Fletcher’s 34-yard interception return) and had 24 of its 31 points set up or scored by either takeaways or special teams.
All told, the Eagles forced five Carolina turnovers, sacked besieged Panthers quarterback Cam Newton nine times for 91 yards and picked him off thrice in the opening 30 minutes. The Eagles only held the ball for 9:19 in the first half and produced nine first downs, but still led 31-7 at the break thanks to their swarming defense and big-play special teams.
That continues a season-long trend, because Philadelphia (7-2) has been opportunistic on defense and special teams from Week 1, scoring a franchise-record nine return touchdowns. No other team in the league has more than four. The Eagles have a mind-blowing five special teams touchdowns in nine games, and four more on defense this year, and they’re winning with complete, well-rounded efforts from all three phases. And that’s a quarterback’s best friend, helping to lighten the offensive load from his shoulders.
But when the Eagles had their chances on offense against Carolina, Sanchez and Co. took advantage, cashing in on four trips to the red zone with four touchdowns plus a field goal drive that stalled at the Panthers 21. Sanchez is a perfect 6 of 6 in red zone trips since he took over for Foles last week during the first half of the win at Houston.
"He looked good," Eagles running back LeSean McCoy said of Sanchez. "We’re comfortable and confident in Mark Sanchez. He’s been a starter in this league and he’s been proven. It’s hard to look at Mark Sanchez as a backup. He showed poise and was the leader for the offense. He directed us in the right direction when we really needed him to. He played lights out today."
But even if he doesn’t on occasion, the first-place Eagles still have a pretty good formula for success this season. Sanchez won’t re-invent the passing game, but he doesn’t have to in Philadelphia. Kelly will put him in the best possible position to thrive in his offense, and I see no reason why he won’t give the Eagles an excellent chance to win their second consecutive NFC East title.
His teammates already see that Sanchez is capable of keeping this train moving and headed for the playoffs. The loss of Foles circa 2013 might have been a devastating blow, but not this year’s version. Sanchez so far, through six-plus quarters, has been a significant upgrade.
"We know what to expect out of Mark," said Eagles left guard Evan Mathis, who made his return to the starting lineup Monday night after being out since suffering a Week 1 MCL injury. “He’s been in this locker room and he’s been on the field with us. We knew he’d come out here and have a good game, play with a lot of energy, find the receivers. We’ve seen him do all of this. We expected everything he’s done. But for him it’s just a starting point."
Sanchez hadn’t won a game as a starter since beating Jacksonville on the road with the Jets in Week 14 of 2012, and he savored the moment Monday night.
"I think when you take a step back, you appreciate so much and you miss it so much," he said. "I just kept telling myself when I was out, if I get a chance to get back out there, I never want to get out again until I retire. I want to keep playing.
"I’ve been through a lot of this stuff before. I’ve been through some tough times, been through some great times. I’ve just got to keep a level head and stay calm and rely on the guys around me, and man, did they come through, big time."
So did Sanchez. At least against the reeling Panthers (3-6-1), who have won just one of their last eight games. But it won’t take long for much better competition to surface, because Philadelphia travels to Green Bay (6-3) on Sunday for a Week 11 showdown that will have major NFC playoff position implications. The Packers are fresh off their own prime-time blowout, having decimated the Bears 55-14 on Sunday night at Lambeau Field. Green Bay’s opportunistic defense will provide a much stiffer test of where Sanchez and the Eagles stand.
"It was an exciting time after a big win and something to celebrate," said Sanchez, of his postgame sideline chat with Kelly as the final seconds ticked off. “But we sure don’t have a heck of a lot of time. I saw Green Bay win pretty big last night, so we have a ton of work to do in a short week and we’re already behind, so we have to go.’’
For one night at least, the Eagles offense went about as well as anyone could have hoped with Sanchez under center. Far tougher games lie ahead, but in Philadelphia, life after Foles isn’t so bad at all.