By all outward appearances, Mark Sanchez has done everything humanly possible to push his game to the next level and elevate his standing among his coaches and teammates. He has worked tirelessly in the offseason to learn new coordinator Tony Sparano's offense. He has carried himself with greater confidence than at any time in his previous three years, something that teammates and coaches have all noticed. And he has performed better than in any other training camp.
Yet for all the hard work on his game and persona, it still remains to be seen whether the Jets' fourth-year quarterback can translate it into improved performance. Only then will Sanchez know for sure that he is indeed ready to lead the Jets back to the playoffs and in the process fend off his legion of critics.
And also fend off the elephant in the room most commonly referred to as "Tebowmania."
With the regular-season opener against the Bills still more than three weeks away, Sanchez can gain at least some measure of his progress in Saturday night's preseason game against the defending Super Bowl champion Giants. This may not have the intensity of the regular season, but there will be enough adrenaline pumping on both sides to give Sanchez a better idea about how things might proceed starting next month. The Giants' defense is among the league's best -- the defensive line unquestionably the best -- so Sanchez will at least get a feel for where his game is at.
"I feel good," Sanchez said after the Jets' final training camp practice in Cortland on Thursday. "It all has to translate onto the field during the season. That's the most important thing, but it was definitely our best camp by far."
Sanchez already has compiled a respectable resume in his first three seasons, appearing in two AFC Championship Games and getting the Jets to 8-5 last year before his well-chronicled late-season meltdown. He was a turnover machine down the stretch, throwing seven of his 18 interceptions in the final three games and inviting questions about whether he was equipped to become a top-flight passer.
His teammates still believe in him; Bart Scott says Sanchez can be a top-10 quarterback, and so does Darrelle Revis. But much like Eli Manning had to back up his contention last season that he deserved to be considered in the elite class with Tom Brady, Sanchez must now do his proving on the field. As Manning's coach, Tom Coughlin, likes to say, "Talk is cheap. Play the game."
Time for Sanchez to play. And prove.
"Each year, as a quarterback in any organization, you have to get better and learn from your mistakes the previous year," Sanchez said. "It's my job to deliver [the ball] and be the trigger man that this team needs, and I'm ready to do that. I'm excited about this team and our potential."
And yes, Sanchez believes he is a top- 10 quarterback. "Sure, you have to think that," he said. "You have to play like that."
But whether he is that remains to be seen.
That's why the 30 minutes he's expected to play against the Giants are an important next step. Even if he is still without his best receiver, Santonio Holmes, and playing behind an offensive line that was brutal at times last season and not much better in last week's preseason opener against the Bengals. More poor blocking against the Giants and Sanchez will no doubt spend a good portion of the evening scrambling for his life.
The confidence is there. So's the work ethic. The leadership, too. Now it's a matter of showing it on the field. The measuring stick for this one is the best one available -- against the champs.
Big night, even if it doesn't count in the standings.