FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Mark Sanchez finally woke up.
As he stood on the sideline Sunday, holding the clipboard typically reserved for the third-string quarterback, he at last realized how far he'd fallen and how much more he stood to lose.
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He had given Rex Ryan no excuse to justify leaving him in against the Cardinals. But luckily for Sanchez, the demotion was short-lived. After two days of deliberation -- "open discussions" of differing opinions within the organization, Ryan said -- the Jets announced Wednesday morning that Sanchez will start Sunday at Jacksonville.
"I think he was more or less sending a message. And it's well received," Sanchez said Wednesday. "I know. I got it."
Three days earlier, Ryan lifted him for Greg McElroy, who in his NFL debut led the Jets' only scoring drive in a 7-6 win. Ryan chose not to anoint either as the starter for the foreseeable future after the game or on Monday, which helped fuel speculation that the front office was divided. But Ryan said the decision to stick with Sanchez was his alone and that he wasn't pressured by owner Woody Johnson, who was rumored to be pushing for McElroy, the Jets' seventh-round pick in 2011.
Ryan said Sanchez's guaranteed $8.25 million in 2013 had "absolutely zero" bearing on his choice. "The biggest thing I kept coming back to was who gives us the best opportunity to win, in particular, this week," he said, repeating his standard refrain. "I believe the correct answer is Mark Sanchez. With that being said, I understand that he has to play better."
Sanchez had three interceptions and a 21.4 quarterback rating Sunday. He has more interceptions (13) than touchdowns (12) and a completion percentage of 55, last among quarterbacks who have started the majority of their team's games.
Nevertheless, Ryan selected Sanchez. "I obviously have to get this decision right,'' he said, "and I believe I have."
Though initially surprised by the benching, Sanchez said: "I understand where he's coming from because everybody needs to be held accountable, myself included. It's my job to play the way I know how. These last couple weeks, for certain stretches of the season, I haven't. It kind of culminated Sunday and that's the end of it. And I think it is."
He brushed off criticisms of his thin skin and gave a curt "not at all" when reminded of the perception that his spirit is broken. If anything, he and Ryan believe this wake-up call can spur Sanchez. "Sometimes when you step back, the vision becomes clearer," Ryan said.
Sanchez said his confidence never wavered while Ryan deliberated, and that he prepared as if he'd start. "I knew at some point before I died, I'd start at quarterback again. I'm glad it's this week," said Sanchez, who talked things over with his family and former backup Mark Brunell.
"For the guys who have been here, they know that in the toughest circumstances I've played my best," Sanchez said, referring to playoff runs in 2009 and 2010. "You never want it to come to this point, but we're here."
He said the benching "was definitely the worst" experience of his life, "but it could turn around and be one of the best things that's ever happened to me."
Ryan harped on Sanchez's turnover problems but wouldn't say he will be on a short leash.
"If he throws one interception, it doesn't mean he's going to get benched, necessarily," Ryan said. He said he "absolutely" would pull him if he struggled again, but added: "I don't want to play the 'what if' games. But I made that decision for a reason the last time, and that's with any player."
Sanchez knows his performance against the Jaguars is about more than just a game. It's about his future with the Jets.
"I think we're all playing for that," he said, adding he was more disappointed he let teammates and coaches down. "This kind of thing affects people's lives and careers. This is serious. Coaches, players, coordinators, everybody. I understand that."