Sanchez’s passage not yet complete

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / December 5, 2010

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FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Mark Sanchez laughs at his verbal misstep, his cheeks creasing, the crowd around him echoing his chuckle. He corrects himself, the words “Big East’’ having slipped out by mistake.

“Excuse me, AFC East,’’ he says, and continues.

Sanchez can be excused for referencing the collegiate conference in his discussion of tomorrow night’s crucial game between division rivals New York and New England. He is just a year and a half removed from being in college himself at Southern California.

It’s something that people seem to forget, especially when looking at the quarterback matchup between the Jets and Patriots.

As Jets wide receiver Santonio Holmes cautioned, “He’s only two years in. He has a long way to go.’’

As offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer warned, “I don’t think you want to compare Mark and Tom [Brady]. I don’t think that’s a fair comparison.’’

Not yet, no. It would certainly be premature to put Sanchez up against Brady, the winner of three Super Bowls. Still, Sanchez has made significant strides between his rookie snaps and his sophomore season, generally the time when quarterbacks are able to make the biggest jump in the quickest amount of time.

That is when the game slows, when the plays begin to flow, when the errors can be noted immediately. This is when the understanding begins.

“I’m fighting to get things right,’’ Sanchez said. “Some of the mistakes that I didn’t really see last year when I first watched the film after a game, I’ll see them right away. I know them after the game.

“I can’t tell you in words. It’s just a different feel out there. You start to understand the game, understand how long the games are. You’re not on so much of an emotional roller coaster during the game.’’

And that understanding has translated into a 9-2 record for the Jets, putting them in control of the conference.

“I just think he’s come a long way,’’ said Mark Brunell, the 40-year-old quarterback signed in part to mentor Sanchez. “He’s certainly playing better than he did in his rookie season.

“In just the time that I’ve known him, in every area he’s just gotten better. And whether it’s his leadership, whether it’s his reading defenses, whether it’s just his knowledge of the offense, he’s really doing a good job, and what’s exciting to me is that he’s only going to get better.’’

Though Sanchez was able to take the Jets to the AFC Championship game last season, the year featured plenty of rookie mistakes. He threw a whopping 20 interceptions against just 12 touchdown passes, and mentioned this week that taking care of the ball better has been his biggest area of improvement.

He also had trouble corralling his emotions at times, something the Jets have continued to address with their quarterback, including fines for poor body language.

“That’s tough,’’ Brunell said. “The game, it’s an emotional game, especially the quarterback position. He can go out there and throw a touchdown pass and follow it up two plays later by throwing an interception or something.

“The highs and lows of the game can be tough to handle. But at the same time, as you get older and as you get more time under your belt, you’re able to handle those emotions and stay more poised, confident.’’

That confidence is apparent as Sanchez walks through the locker room clad in workout gear and a black ski mask, with only his eyes visible. It’s apparent when he walks back through, wearing just shorts and, again, the ski mask. It’s apparent, too, when he crosses for a third time, wearing a green terrycloth robe on, his last name and number on the back. He does it again the next day, earning gentle ribbing from teammates for his burglar-chic look.

He seems ready, for this market, for this team, for the expectations that come with being a franchise quarterback.

“The expectations are higher,’’ Brunell said. “You’ve got to perform, you can’t make the mistakes that you made the year before. And what’s great is that’s what he’s doing. He’s making better decisions and making more big plays.’’

And pulling games out at the end. Though the Jets have been criticized for their inability to get their offense going early in games, Sanchez has come up with wins — often in dramatic fashion with four late-game victories.

Not everything is perfect, however. Sanchez has seen an uptick in interceptions lately, and his completion percentage is 55.2, near the bottom among starting QBs.

There is certainly room to grow, with Sanchez coming off a poor performance against Cincinnati on Thanksgiving (166 yards, one touchdown, one interception). As Schottenheimer said, “I think the fact that Mark expects so much from himself, and because of the way he’s been playing, I think it just kind of caught him off guard. ‘What did I do? What did I miss?’ ’’

“I think you learn from your mistakes,’’ said Brunell, “and with your emotions, you can work on being more poised, being more confident, being more even-keel.

“It’s hard. And he’s worked on that and he’s handling things very, very well.’’

Especially, as wide receiver Braylon Edwards said, in terms of forgetting mistakes. And that becomes more apparent when more is on the line.

“I think when you look at Mark, even when he was in college, he played best in the biggest games,’’ Jets coach Rex Ryan said. “And this [game] is as big as it gets in the regular season.

“Are you going to say, ‘No, it’s just another game?’ Oh really? Well, we’ll take the win, you take the loss, see how you feel about that. But this is a huge game in the regular season, and he’s always performed well in those type of games.’’

Like a certain opposing quarterback this week.

There it is, that comparison again — too much, too soon, too early. And, still, there is one area in which Sanchez can already put himself up against Brady.

“We all know Tom Brady’s a great quarterback,’’ Schottenheimer said. “But I feel pretty proud of the fact that Mark’s beaten him two out of three times.’’

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @AmalieBenjamin.

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