Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Sanchez to start season for Jets, even after sub-par performance in Baltimore

What a difference a week makes.

Kellen Clemens started at quarterback in the Jets preseason opener against St. Louis, fumbling on his first drive and once again proving his inability to perform as an NFL starting quarterback. Rookie Mark Sanchez, on the other hand, entered on the team's third drive and made an immediate impact, completing a 48-yard pass to preseason wonder David Clowney.

Fast forward to ten days later. This time it was Sanchez getting the start on a Monday night in Baltimore, facing the aggressive, intimidating defense that new coach Rex Ryan built. After a promising start in his first game, Sanchez looked a rookie in game two.

His first pass of the game turned into a touchdown. For the Ravens. Facing pressure from All-Pro linebacker Ray Lewis, Sanchez tried to check down into the flat, but threw it right into the chest of defensive end Haloti Ngata, who put the Ravens up 7-0 after a 25-yard return in the game's first minute.

The next possession didn't look much better for Sanchez, who threw a pass that should have been intercepted and taken to the house by Lewis. In four first-quarter possessions, the prized rookie could not move the Jets into Ravens territory, resulting in three punts and the aforementioned turnover.

In the second quarter, Sanchez would show the poise that jumped him up draft boards across the league in April. One trait an NFL quarterback needs is a short memory, and Sanchez bounced back from a rough first quarter to lead the Jets on an 11-play, 64-yard scoring drive that culminated in a 19-yard touchdown pass to Leon Washington.

Washington was the true star of the drive with 54 total yards, including a 16-yard screen pass on third-and-12 and a 15-yard run on third-and-10 to keep the drive alive. The drive also came after the Ravens pulled multiple first-teamers, including Lewis and safety Ed Reed. Nonetheless, it was a positive sign to see Sanchez fight through adversity.

Maybe it was that second-quarter drive that led to Ryan naming Sanchez the Jets' starting quarterback for Week 1 against Houston on Wednesday. Maybe it was Kellen Clemens' continued inability to perform at a high level (or even an average one), as he had an interception of his own returned for a touchdown in the final minute of the first half, on a pass thrown well behind his intended receiver. Regardless, it was the outcome expected by many.

It was clear when the competition was deadlocked at the start of training camp that the job was Sanchez's to lose. Overall, he played well enough not to lose the job and Clemens didn't do anything to win the job, a combination that likely led to Ryan's decision.

I am a believer that rookie quarterbacks should sit and learn for at least half a season before being thrust into a starting role. But I have said all along that the Jets should start Sanchez, even before I saw him throw an NFL pass. I've seen enough of Clemens to know what he can do, and it isn't much. What is there to learn from watching an over-matched quarterback compound his mistakes over and over again?

Sanchez looked good in his first action last week and, while he looked shaky against the Ravens defense, what rookie quarterback wouldn't? He impressed me by staying composed through all the ugliness in Baltimore, a trait which should serve him well in his future, which seems bright.

The road will be bumpy this season, but if the Jets' running game can dominate time of possession and the defense can hold opponents under 20 points more often than not, the Jets could surprise in 2009, much like rookie quarterback Joe Flacco and the Ravens did last season.

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