Mark Sanchez, New York Jets quell drama with efficient win

ST. LOUIS -- On the bottom shelf of New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez's locker on Sunday, a football from this freshly minted 27-13 win over the St. Louis Rams was stuffed inside his black backpack. It was a reward for his performance, a symbol of his success.

That's what happens when a quarterback plays like this, when he helps snap a three-game skid during a desperate moment by playing smart, efficient football. But it isn't all that happens. It isn't the only benefit.

The lesson to be learned, both by the quarterback and his coaches, is a simple one: Sanchez doesn't need to be magical to be successful. Nor does he need to be exceptional to quell the questions and the drama inside this Jets locker room. For now, he simply needs to be -- hold your breath for this dreaded term -- a game manager.

"I don't know if it was the stadium, the calls, whatever it was; we were just clicking on offense and that felt great," Sanchez said. "We just handled the ball well and played a good, clean, smart game."

Sanchez threw just 20 passes Sunday, and his longest completion was a relatively modest 32-yard gain to wide receiver Jeremy Kerley. But you know what? He didn't throw any interceptions, and his completion percentage (75 percent) was the second highest of his career.

That's the way to earn game balls at times like this. That's how you pull out wins when you don't have many weapons, when your star wide receiver is on the shelf, when your back is pressed so firmly against the wall that you can feel the other side. Sanchez wasn't necessarily a star Sunday. But in turn, with the win, he became one.

"That was a very respectful job that Rex Ryan and his team did this week under difficult circumstances," Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. "They got the team together, made enough plays to win this game. We got out-played. We got out-coached."

Fisher was exactly right. The Jets nailed it Sunday, in terms of the game plan they put together. They were equally effective at slightly altering it -- even if it called for fewer plays for Tim Tebow -- when the Rams gave them unexpected looks.

By re-establishing its identity as a ground-and-pound unit (having a fully healthy fleet of running backs helped), by maintaining long drives without turnovers, by converting 47 percent of third downs, the offense also kept the defense fresh through four full quarters. Yes, that's yet another benefit of playing efficient football.

Guess what else? You can be assured, as a result of a sound performance on offense and a durable game on defense, nobody will care about how Tebow plays in practice this week. That is perhaps the most understated aspect of all the drama that has surrounded the Jets lately: People wouldn't feel a need to rip the backup quarterback if the starter would simply do his job, like he did Sunday.

Football like this doesn't just fuel momentum. It helps silence drama. Don't misunderstand: The Jets are plenty prone to creating more drama down the road. And as Sanchez himself noted, this win needs to be swallowed with a dose of perspective. But they at least also got a taste of what it takes to chill things out.

"I don't know if this was a gut-check game, but I can tell you this: We needed a win in the worst way," Jets safety Yeremiah Bell said. "We're going to take this thing one game at a time and just see what we can do from here."

With a brief week of preparation before a Thursday night showdown against the rival New England Patriots, the Jets have no time to celebrate this win. Nor should they, anyway. It's only one step on a long road back to normalcy. But they should nonetheless fully digest how the victory came about.

Earlier in the week, Sanchez talked about his 2009 rookie season, about how it felt like the team won one close game after another, about how winning became contagious. Sanchez became a star that season, not because he played like Robert Griffin III but because he didn't try to put the world on his shoulders.

There's something to be said about the return to a similar plan on Sunday, to an identity that wouldn't be such a bad one to possess in future weeks.

"This kind of stuff becomes habit if you make it a habit," Sanchez said. "We can become a team that just doesn't turn the ball over. That could be our identity, if we want it to be, and if we work at it. Again, it's one game. We've got to keep this thing in perspective. We've just got to keep building off of this."

Sanchez held the worst completion percentage of any NFL starter through the first 10 weeks of the season. He had far too many interceptions, far too few touchdown passes. That's not entirely on him, given the absolute lack of personnel he has to work with. But on Sunday, he was put in a position to change that -- and he took advantage of it.

And as a result, after a game in which Sanchez threw 20 times and the Jets' three running backs accounted for 33 carries, he was the one with the game ball stuffed securely in his backpack.

This was a good win for the Jets, even if it wasn't against a top-tier opponent. It was a good win because it provided a lesson about the benefits of efficiency, benefits that will not only help on the field, but in the locker room, as well.

"We know that we are a long way away," Ryan said. "We are 4-6, and we can't come up for air. We just have to stay the course and keep getting better."

On Sunday, they did just that.

Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @jeffdarlington.

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