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Mark Sanchez exudes starter swagger as Jets circus opens

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- The pass down the left sideline spiraled through the air, landing in the hands of wide receiver Stephen Hill. On a play that covered 75 yards, the rookie wide receiver's path to the end zone continued unimpeded, his double move having left the cornerback helpless.

Quarterback Mark Sanchez, the author of the throw, raised his hands in the air. Even during organized team activities on a Thursday in May, the play was pretty enough to celebrate.

"A perfect pass," Hill would say later. "I just kept trucking."

Hill is a tall receiver who can run -- the kind of target that could team with a quarterback to become one of those NFL tandems that fans embrace, fantasy owners covet and opponents fear.

Hill's arrival seems to signal the return of the vertical passing game for a New York Jets offense that saw Sanchez complete one pass during the 2011 season -- one, in Week 3 -- that covered more than 41 yards. When he is asked about Hill, Sanchez's eyes widen, suggesting endless possibilities.

"Obviously," coach Rex Ryan said, the passing game will feature more of a north-south structure under new offensive coordinator Tony Sparano.


So much about these Jets seems to include innuendo and mystery, agendas that might be hidden, words that could have double meanings.

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But not on this day.

It was Sanchez who looked every bit the starting quarterback he is. His passes, Ryan raved, had a certain "zip" on them. His manner was confident. He seemed to make a conscious effort to encourage teammates with a pat on the back or an arm around a shoulder. To reporters gathered in front of his locker, a smiling Sanchez offered this streamlined version of his current mindset: "Just focus on the next play, have a short memory and keep playing. Be the leader this team needs."

Those two sentences alone should have Jets fans singing hallelujahs.

This year, there are no silly Super Bowl predictions in Jetland (at least not before Memorial Day). And on this day -- the calendar indicates it was May 24 -- Sanchez seemed to rediscover, at least in terms of his media relations, the stride of a starter. Asked if he feels any less sure of his role than he did a year ago, Sanchez made eye contact and smiled.

"Not at all," he said. "I feel great."

If Sanchez was emboldened, his crisp practice was likely a major reason. But other images from Thursday, as reporters took notes, surely didn't hurt. Including this one: While Sanchez and quarterbacks Greg McElroy, Matt Simms and G.J. Kinne huddled with position coach Matt Cavanaugh, the Jets' punt team practiced -- with Tim Tebow lined up as personal protector.

(The record will show, your honor, 452 written words before "Tebow" appeared.)

Later, Ryan couldn't stop himself from giddily musing that Jets opponents will have to be oh so wary of Tebow's prowess and the threat of fake punts. For his part, Tebow, among the league's most visible and popular players, is playing special teams for the first time. In his life. Without a hint of complaint.

"He's fitting in," said the Jets' best player, cornerback Darrelle Revis, who continued to talk about Tebow in reverent tones. "Why wouldn't I like him?"

Across the room, teammates chanted Tebow's name as he walked to his locker.

"Tell them about Lolo!" implored center Nick Mangold. The Pro Bowl center was referring to Lolo Jones, an Olympic hurdler who pulled a Tebow in revealing, to HBO, that she, too, is a virgin. Tebow laughed and later said he "loves" that Mangold -- an ardent Sanchez supporter -- is among his most vocal, good-natured hecklers.

Whether Tebow, who struggled during 7-on-7 drills and explained that he is still going through the growing pains of learning a new offense, proves to be a good backup quarterback for the Jets remains to be seen. It is, after all, early. So if it seems silly to chart plays and evaluate dueling quarterback throws during a practice where players didn't even wear pads, then consider us in the media guilty of such folly.

But we were not alone.

On Thursday afternoon, Brian Murphy, who is Sanchez's agent and president of Athletes First, posted this from his Twitter account, @A1Murph: "No offense media, but of course Sanchez is going to out perform (sic) Tim T. Mark is a franchise quarterback and Tim is a great athlete."

Particularly on this day, that sentiment from the Sanchez camp seemed unnecessary. Amateurish. Curious, even.

But perhaps it provided this reminder: However stable and defined a morning practice in May might seem, these Jets remain very much a work in progress.


Follow Kimberly Jones on Twitter @KimJonesSports

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