FLORHAM PARK, N.J. - The black garbage bags strewn all over the Jets' locker room signaled the end. But all Mark Sanchez could see is the future.
As his teammates cleaned out their lockers around him Monday, the 23-year-old quarterback was focused on what lies ahead - and everything he must do to improve.
"It's a long list. I don't know if you have time in that recorder for all that," he said with a smile a day after the Jets' 30-17 loss to the Colts in the AFC Championship Game. "I've got a lot to work on. But we're excited about the body of work we've put together this year. It's going to be everything from footwork to the way you talk to guys in the huddle.
"Every game, every individual play, every practice, was just a small experience that I'm going to take with me and grow from and get better."
The inexperience - and, at times, stubbornness - that plagued him midway through the season were no longer evident by the end of the season. After losing six of seven to drop to 4-6, the Jets won seven of eight to move within one victory of the Super Bowl.
Sanchez said he learned several lessons during that turnaround, but none as important as: "This is what I'm supposed to do. I'm in the right place."
The sting of defeat still is painful, he said, and likely will linger far longer than the offseason. But this is just the first step in what should be his long football career, coach Rex Ryan believes.
"I think we saw our future," he said, referring to Sanchez's postseason showing. " . . . And as comfortable as Mark got in the system and Brian [Schottenheimer's] system and all that, you just saw him growing by leaps and bounds, his confidence, everything. And I think our team believes in him. Not that they didn't believe to begin with, but we also knew that he needed that experience."
In the three playoff games, Sanchez completed 41 of 68 passes for 539 yards with four touchdown passes, two interceptions and one sack. Now Sanchez is looking forward to a much-needed break from football before he hits the books and starts working out with his wide receivers during the offseason.
His season may have ended without the Vince Lombardi Trophy, but for Sanchez, the ride was "absolutely worth it."
"You get to play a few more games in tough environments on the road. You experience different stadiums, play against some great teams and come out with wins. I'll take that any day," he said. "But at the same time, we'd like to be playing one more. So we'll fix some things and get ready to, hopefully, do that next year."