After throwing his single-game-career-high fourth touchdown pass on Sunday, a 16-yard strike to Santonio Holmes with 61 seconds to play that lifted the Jets to a 28--24 victory over the visiting Bills, Mark Sanchez basically shrugged when later asked about the team rallying to win a critical game.
"We've been in that situation before," the quarterback said.
If big-game victories have become a matter of course for the Jets, who improved to 6--5 in their quest to reach a third straight playoff, so too have questions about whether Sanchez can become an elite QB. The third-year pro helped the Jets win four road playoff games the past two seasons, tying for second most in league history among quarterbacks, and has thrown three times as many touchdowns (nine) as interceptions in six career postseason games.
However, because his regular-season stats scream average -- 47 touchdown passes, 44 interceptions, 55.0 percent completion rate -- Sanchez has come under fire from the fans, media and, indirectly, coach Rex Ryan, who last week gave backup Mark Brunell practice snaps with the first team.
If nothing else, Sanchez's situation illuminates how the barometer for quarterback play is changing in the age of pass-oriented offenses and fantasy football leagues. QBs were once judged on wins and losses. Now victories carry less weight with some people if they're unaccompanied by big stats.
"Everybody wants to talk about QB rating," says Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. "Well, let's say you're in a dink-and-dunk offense and you go 20 of 26 for 180 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions and you win by 10 points. That's not good enough for some people. It's a shame that the rating doesn't have a certain percentage for wins. Why is it that quarterbacks that are winning games but not putting up big numbers are being looked at as the weak link?"
Sanchez isn't the only quarterback facing scrutiny for failing to make the leap from solid to sensational by their third or fourth season. Joe Flacco helped Baltimore reach the AFC title game as a rookie in 2008 and won a playoff game in each of the next two years, but through Sunday he had career lows in completion percentage and quarterback rating.
Matt Ryan led the Falcons to the playoffs as a rookie in '08 and to a 13-3 record in his third season, but he's 0-2 in the postseason, failed to reach 200 yards passing in either game and also didn't throw for more scores than picks in either.
Josh Freeman started the final nine games of his rookie season with the Bucs in 2009 and threw for 25 scores and just six picks last year during a 10-6 season, but this year he's on pace to finish with 23 interceptions and just 15 touchdowns.
Some coaches and executives feel quarterbacks are better prepared to start immediately when they reach the NFL not only because more colleges are running pro-style offenses, but also because spread attacks are making signal-callers more comfortable with passing games. However it also could mean that QBs are coming into the league with less room to improve than they did a decade ago, when offenses were more ground-oriented. If true, could fans and some owners be setting themselves up for frustration and disappointment if the players fail to reach elite status before their first contracts expire?
"Before drafting Matt, we analyzed the system he was in and the system that some of the other quarterbacks were in," says Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff. "But it's not like we spent hours upon hours ruminating about it as it pertains to their technique or knowledge. A lot of teams are looking for the raw skills that these quarterbacks possess and project from there. It never came up in conversation that maybe he had maxed out because of the system he had been under. But it's interesting that you would think that way. Maybe there is something to it."
The question figures to be asked before the 2012 draft, in which Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck is expected to be selected No. 1 overall. Luck has been groomed in the ways of the NFL since he arrived on campus, first from former head coach Jim Harbaugh, who played quarterback for 15 seasons in the NFL, and now from offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, who spent nine years as an NFL assistant, learning offensive principles from respected strategists such as Norv Turner, Paul Hackett and the late Mike Heimerdinger.
"A big reason a lot of people feel like Andrew is the most NFL-ready quarterback to come out of college in some time is because we run, in every aspect of our offense, a pro-style system," says Hamilton. "The way we call plays, the things that we ask him to do in pass protection, the audibles that we ask him to manage at the line of scrimmage, our formations, our read system -- they're the same things that NFL teams are doing. They're running the exact same offense, verbatim, at the San Francisco 49ers that we're running here at Stanford."
That should help to smooth out Luck's transition to the NFL, but it also could mean that he'll enter the league closer to his athletic ceiling. Sanchez, Ryan and Flacco each ran pro-style systems and succeeded immediately, but none has made that noticeable leap in performance --despite their teams trying to surround them with more weapons. In the last two years Baltimore has added wideouts Anquan Boldin, Lee Evans and Torrey Smith and tight end Ed Dickson. New York traded for Holmes and signed running back LaDainian Tomlinson last season. This season it added wideout Plaxico Burress. Meanwhile, Atlanta traded for Tony Gonzalez, the league's alltime leader in catches and touchdowns for tight ends, in 2009, and pulled off a blockbuster trade in the 2011 draft for Alabama wideout Julio Jones.
Yet ... Ryan is on pace to throw more interceptions and fewer touchdowns than he did last season, Sanchez has the highest ratio of interceptions per pass attempt (2.9) among qualifying quarterbacks, and Flacco and Freeman, statistically, are having career-worst seasons.
"They're still young players, you can't forget that," says Schottenheimer. "You see veteran players go out and struggle because it's not an easy position they're playing. Just because a team or a guy has early success doesn't mean that they're going to have some magical jump in Year 2, Year 3, Year 4. You don't know when it's going to happen -- or if it's going to happen. Each case is different and each case needs to be looked at in that regard. I know there have been guys that have come in and had a good couple of seasons, like Ben Roethlisberger, and they go on to have a great career. Then there are other guys that come in and have a really good first year and fall off the face of the earth. It's a great question and I think there's a lot you can debate there. But I don't think you can generalize it.
"Mark, his first year, he was just going about his business, playing, playing," says Schottenheimer. "He didn't have to do much because we had the league's No. 1 rushing attack. He had a couple of really, really bad games, five interceptions against Buffalo, and we're talking about, 'Hey, what are we going to do? Do we need to make a change?' Then he learned that he could just go out and manage the game. Some people think it's a negative term. I don't think it's a negative term at all. Look at Alex Smith in San Francisco. He's not putting up Brady-like numbers but his team is (9-2)."
Several coaches expressed concern about measuring a quarterback's effectiveness in touchdowns and interceptions. "As an offensive coordinator and a playcaller, I can make Mark Sanchez throw for 350 yards," says Schottenheimer. "But is that what's best for us to win games? I think the answer to that is no."
Sanchez, Flacco, Ryan and Freeman are on teams whose identity revolves around running the football and playing attacking, physical defense. As rookies they often were put in positions that didn't require great risk and told not to take chances. Throw the ball away if a play wasn't there, then come back and fight on the next play or next series. Now people want them to flip a switch and join Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Tom Brady as elite passers. Will they? Can they?
The Chargers gave up on Brees after a terrible third season (second as the full-time starter) and made a draft-day trade for quarterback Philip Rivers. Brees, who was playing in the same offense as Sanchez, responded with a Pro Bowl season in Year 4 and has been one of the game's best passers since, particularly after signing with New Orleans in 2006.
"You also have to understand too that defensive coordinators build their book of knowledge on these quarterbacks who've been in the league two to four years," Dimitroff says. "They have a historical perspective on what these players can do, their strengths and weaknesses and how they operate. They really hone in on the challenges that each one faces. One guy may have arm strength issues, one guy may not be the best decision-maker, one guy may not be as accurate. I just think that these coordinators are so adept at identifying the shortcomings of these players, especially at the quarterback position, that you have to give them some credit."
Perhaps, but when a quarterback is selected in the first round -- and definitely within the top 10 picks -- the expectation is that he will be a game changer, not a game manager. Fans expect it. Media expect it. Owners expect it. Yet the inconvenient truth could be that the players are coming into the league with more polish than potential, or at least closer to maximizing their peak potential than a decade ago.
"Everyone just assumes that when you draft in the first round the guy is going to be the next Tom Brady or Peyton Manning," says Dimitroff. "But few quarterbacks have the upside to be like them, or even [like] a Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers. That doesn't mean your team has no chance if you don't have one of those guys. There are some very valid levels below that elite level that can allow organizations to be successful and make runs at Super Bowls. Everyone needs to understand that. Owners and team builders and head coaches need to realize that you can win with very good quarterbacks. They don't have to necessarily be the elite quarterback of the league to be successful as a team."