In Week 14, the 8-4 Seahawks, their defense back on point, will travel across the country to face an 9-3 Eagles squad with an offense that has proven to be a tough nut for any defense to crack since Chip Kelly made it his own. Factor in Seattle's power-based offense and Philadelphia's sack-happy defense, and no additional narrative should be needed. This game, one of the most intriguing in Week 14's overall slate, could very well help decide how the NFC playoff race shapes up.
But there's a personal side to the game story, originating from Seattle's head coach, Pete Carroll and Philadelphia's current quarterback, Mark Sanchez. Before Sanchez was feted and eventually ousted as the New York Jets' quarterback, he was Carroll's signal-caller at USC in 2007 and '08, back when nothing could stop Carroll's Trojans. Sanchez completed 313 of 487 pass attempts for 3,965 yards, 41 touchdowns and 16 interceptions at USC, and when he decided to make himself available for the 2009 NFL draft, Carroll was opposed to the idea -- he believed that his junior quarterback needed more time before making that call.
At the time, Carroll said, "Mark is going against the grain on this decision. He knows that. He knows that coming out early is a tremendous challenge for a quarterback and the statistics don't back up that it's easy to be successful. One of the difficult aspects of this decision is starting for 15, 16 games as he has -- that lessens the amount of information the NFL has for him. The risk is that as they take apart his season, they find things he could maybe have rectified and solidified had he stayed another year."
Sanchez left for the 2009 draft anyway, where the Jets traded up to make him the fifth overall selection. After a couple of successful seasons in which he helped lead his team to two straight AFC championship games, things started to fall apart for Sanchez and for the Jets. Limited passing concepts and a dearth of target talent met with Sanchez's own relative inability to transcend his surroundings, and after he lost the '13 season to a shoulder injury, Sanchez was done in New York.
Chip Kelly signed him as a relative afterthought in a public sense in March, giving Sanchez one year to prove himself in a more friendly situation -- as a backup with a coaching staff that truly understood the quarterback position. (While this is happening, of course, Carroll's team was winning their first Super Bowl in franchise history.) Now, Sanchez is in a great spot for his college-to-pro redemption.
"I had a great background on Mark," Kelly said Wednesday, when asked why he thought Sanchez would be a good fit with the Eagles. "He’s a guy that’s a proven winner in this league -- he had over 60 starts in this league, went to the AFC championship game twice, and he just needed a new start coming out of New York, coming off an injury. I think he’s athletic for a quarterback; he’s a great decision-maker. We were excited about the opportunity to get involved with him."
In the four games Sanchez has started since Nick Foles went down injured this season, the Eagles have gone 3-1, and for the most part, he has the mobility and arm to do what Kelly wants him to do. Sanchez appears to be a bit bewildered by more advanced route concepts at times, but he's completed 111 passes in 175 attempts for 1,404 yards, eight touchdowns and six interceptions. Sanchez doesn't look like a world-beater on tape, but for a guy who was thought by many to be done at the end of his Jets tenure, it's a nice comeback story.
While Kelly blanched at the idea that his offensive system is so quarterback friendly, as everyone seems to think ("All I know is that if your quarterback throws three interceptions, it's not a friendly system"), Sanchez and Carroll were eager to discuss why it seems to work for the Eagles' quarterback.
"They’re making yards running the football, they’re controlling the clock, making a lot of plays, and the quarterbacks are functioning real well," Carroll said. "Mark looks really quick in the offense -- very decisive, he gets the ball out, and they’ve got guys open so he’s making good use of the system and he looks really good in it. When I saw him, I think I commented to him back in preseason, I saw him play, and thought he looked good in it -- I sent him a note about it way back then and he just look sharp and was functioning really well."
However, there have been adjustments for Sanchez.
"I like the tempo, I like the verbiage," Sanchez said. "I like the way they teach, I think that’s one of the most important things. When you’re in good system and you have good players -- that’s kind of a prerequisite -- you need that. But when you get coaches that are more than just coaches; not that they want to be buddy-buddy with you and tell you want you want to hear, but really the opposite. They want you to succeed and to do that they have to teach you. I think that’s when you get to that next level, to that place where everybody is having fun and learning at the same time and then that’s how you start to build the culture."
One adaptation, however, has been the read-option -- something that Sanchez never did at USC, and something that Carroll didn't check off with consistency at any level until he had Russell Wilson in the fold.
"I saw [the read option] in college and saw the coaches running it and it kind of came in the league," Sanchez said. "It was one of those things like, 'Well shoot, you have to be fast to do that, so I’m probably out of that one.'"
But Sanchez has proven to have the wheels to run the read-option at a decent level and roll out to make completions. It was a matter of adaptation, and Kelly had the right philosophy to help him understand.
"Just like you get a timely completion, or that five-yard run, or you kind of get hit at the line of scrimmage but you scramble for a couple of yards or whatever -- those kind of runs can hurt a defense," Sanchez said. "Especially when they have your play sniffed out and when they've got you for a loss and boom, the quarterback can keep it. But I mean, the Seahawks do it as well and I mean obviously, Russell is a heck of a lot faster so it’s a little more effective. I’ve been able to do it to some degree, so that’s been pretty fun."
As for the disagreement back then regarding Sanchez's NFL readiness, both player and coach have set that aside. There's clearly a lot of regard and respect between Sanchez and Carroll to this day.
"It seems so long ago now -- we just disagreed and it became something that seemed bigger than it really was," Sanchez said. "We just disagreed about one thing and that’s okay. We disagreed about a lot of stuff over the years, and that’s fine -- there is nothing wrong with that. There were never any hard feelings. He never wished me ill will or hope I’d play poorly, he just expressed his opinion. I made up my mind and knew what I wanted to do and that was it. So it kind of took on a life of its own in the media, and I took it as a form of respect.
"I love Coach Carroll -- I always have and I always will. I think he’s one of the best -- not just coaches, but people I’ve been around. He’s more than just a coach, he’s a teacher and I took that as a form of respect as him wanting me back on his team, and that means the world to me because I had so much fun playing for him."
Carroll, who texted Sanchez with affirmations after the Eagles signed him, seemed to remember the sentiment as almost parental.
"He was awesome with us, he had a great career -- he kind of grew up with us before he was even in school, his family was very close to the program, and we were very close," Carroll said. "The main thing was that he was really forthright and he was very determined to take on the challenge. So that’s why over the years, I found that the guys that were really tuned into the challenge of it, it didn’t matter what you were saying to them, they were going to do what they wanted to do. ... I love Mark and he’s always been a great kid and I’ll always be close to him, follow him, and cheer for him. It was an interesting time."
It remains an interesting time for both parties, and their current teams. Even when the Seahawks and Eagles oppose each other on Sunday with so much on the line, the bond between Carroll and Sanchez will stay in place.