At first blush, Mark Sanchez and Rex Ryan made an odd couple. The No. 5 draft pick from the glamorous Southern California football program was on the cover of GQ sans shirt before taking his first training- camp snap at quarterback. The rotund Ryan was frustrated by too many owners who told him to keep his shirt on until the Jets' Woody Johnson finally gave him a chance to board the NFL head-coaching carousel.
But when they first met before the draft last spring, Sanchez and Ryan found they had one thing in common: unabashed self-confidence. When they hit the New York stage to rave opening reviews for their 3-0 start, the pair happily obliged the media crush by helping to pump up their bubble - without quite realizing how quickly it could deflate in the 1-6 nosedive that followed, as Sanchez threw interception after interception.
Of all the dips on the roller coaster, the lowest might have come after the loss at home to Atlanta that dropped the Jets to 7-7. Sanchez hit his longest pass of the season, a 65-yard touchdown bomb to Braylon Edwards, but he also threw three more picks for a season total of 20. When it was over, he and Ryan commiserated in the coach's office before the postgame news conference."Man, goddang it, Rex, what was I doing, man? Why did I throw that ball?" Sanchez said of his game-ending interception.
"It's all right," Ryan told him. "We're going to get better. You're learning from it, right?"
"Gee, it's hard," Sanchez said. "I hate this feeling. I hate coming in here. I've got to do a news conference; I hate talking, and God, I know I'm going to say it's my fault, and I hate saying it. It's terrible. You know, it's just a bad feeling."
"Look," Ryan said, "this is what we signed up for, you and me. Ten-plus years. We are going to do this for a long time. There are going to be more losses and way more wins."
Then Sanchez, who recounted the conversation this week, and Ryan went out to face the media music one after the other. Sanchez took the blame and Ryan erroneously said the Jets' season was over because they had just been eliminated from playoff contention.
Did someone say "rookie mistake?" Oops! Turned out the NFL schedule handed them a second chance, and the Jets found their way into a wild-card berth, upsetting undefeated Indianapolis after coach Jim Caldwell pulled quarterback Peyton Manning in the third quarter and beating a Bengals team that already had qualified and had little motivation.
Now the Jets' newlywed quarterback and coach are headed for tomorrow's playoff rematch in Cincinnati giddy with their good fortune.
"[Ryan] makes the joke about both of us being rookies," Sanchez said this week. "I counted us out of the playoffs myself. That's what Rex said, and I was like, 'I believed you, and now, here we are. So we might as well make something of it, right?' ''
The Super Bowl dream is alive for Ryan, Sanchez and the rest of the Jets, though the odds are against them and even a wild-card win would seem to many like the cherry on top of a successful rookie year for the new regime.
It was a long time coming to the inevitable conclusion that the best formula for the Jets is to rely on the NFL's No. 1 rushing game and No. 1 defense, but Sanchez finally seems to understand it's more important to avoid interceptions than it is for him to make all the big plays.
He was so successful in the early going that it fed his confidence to play as big a role as he did at USC. Then came three interceptions at New Orleans, five against Buffalo, two against Jacksonville, four at New England and three against Atlanta. He was costing the Jets winnable games, but veterans on both sides of the ball resolved to ride it out with him, offering their criticism in an encouraging way.
Everyone in the organization from Johnson to general manager Mike Tannenbaum to Ryan, Sanchez said, told him it wasn't a matter of changing his personality. "They just wanted me to be me," Sanchez said. " 'Just make the right decisions. We drafted you No. 5 overall. You are our guy. Nothing is changing. You are going to be the dude. It's up to you.' I felt their confidence."
Of all the players in the locker room, Sanchez said he leaned most heavily on running back Thomas Jones for advice. Despite Sanchez's charisma in the huddle and obvious skill level, Jones said he had to learn what kind of team he had around him and where he fit in the scheme.
"Being a quarterback like Mark, he doesn't want to give up on plays," Jones said. "Sometimes in the NFL, you just have to live to see another day. I think he's learned that this season."
Defenses continue to stack the box at the line of scrimmage with as many as 10 players, Jones said, trying to bait Sanchez into throwing the ill-advised pass. But he has avoided interceptions the past two weeks, making the correct throws when it's necessary to keep the chains moving but also showing a willingness to accept a punt before a turnover.
"He was kind of up-and- down through most of the season, but at the critical point in the season, he's gotten better," right tackle Damien Woody said. "You want to play your best ball in December, and that's where he's done a better job of taking care of the football and making the right decisions. As long as he does that, we've got a heck of a shot."
It's a process, one Sanchez had to experience for himself before he could begin to move forward. His public acceptance of blame wasn't for cosmetic purposes. He took his failures to heart and worked to learn the tough lessons.
"You kind of do some soul-searching and look at yourself and [ask], 'What do I want to be? Who am I?' Those big questions," Sanchez said. "I know I made the right decision leaving school. I know this is where I'm supposed to be at this moment and what I am going to do next week to eliminate mistakes from last week.
"Am I totally out of [the midseason slump]? I don't know because there's still plenty of mistakes that I made in the last game . . . But I kind of found that with the way we are running the ball, with being accurate, being smart, that has been our ticket the last couple of games."
It's fair to say Ryan and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer have learned how to work around the rookie quarterback's weaknesses to minimize his opportunity to make the killing error. At the same time, Ryan has had Sanchez's back every step of the way and is committed to their future together.
"It's going to be funny watching how this thing works," Ryan predicted, "because in the next year, we are all going to be talking about how he's the strength of our team and not looked at as a negative. I truly believe it's just a matter of time before that happens."