No longer weak link, Sanchez now can be counted on in clutch

The NFL's new Mr. Clutch was at the locker adjacent to his quarterback, both guys drained mentally and physically from the jammed-to-the-lid 60 minutes of football they'd just finished. And who better than Santonio Holmes, who's been through a few of these big moments before, to guide Mark Sanchez on what the 23-year-old was feeling?

"Just take it all in," Holmes said, slouched by his stall at New Meadowlands Stadium. Sanchez repeated his star receiver, "Just take it all in," as he stared off into space.

Vote: Never Say Never Moment

The Jets took over the ball with no timeouts, needing to drive 72 yards in 49 seconds. In the end, Mark Sanchez hit Santonio Holmes for the winning TD. Was that the best Week 11 moment?

If you're Sanchez, there's plenty to absorb from the 18 months since the Jets sent bushel of picks to Cleveland to jump 12 spots and select you fifth overall in the 2009 draft. If you're Sanchez, the Texans game on Sunday, in which the Jets raced to a 23-7 lead, blew that advantage, then came back to win in the end, was a microcosm of your career to this point.

There have been ups and downs, but the truth is that, to those inside the Jets building, the quarterback hasn't been fazed by much of anything. The lows, and there were those that had some writing Sanchez off earlier this year, didn't sink him. Likewise, the highs -- like the one described above, where he sat quietly to process what had happened amid a jubilant locker room -- hardly send him to the moon.

"He was always the same," says general manager Mike Tannenbaum. "He just embraced the setbacks, wanted to learn. He's been great all the way through. He never blinked last year, and we had losing streaks. He just never changed."

Going into 2010, with a loaded roster, Sanchez was the Jets' single biggest question mark, and his first start of this season didn't help. New York failed to get into the end zone in a 10-9 loss to Baltimore, and Sanchez completed just 48 percent of his passes for 74 yards.

And so under the burn of that Gotham spotlight, Sanchez was written off with every bit the fanfare and hastiness he was dubbed "The Sanchize" the year before.

Imagine that. Seventeen games into his career, and he was finished by the public's standards. Wasn't it worth noting that Tom Brady, at that point of his career (Week 1 of Year 2) hadn't yet taken a meaningful snap?

That, simply, is the reality of playing in New York. If the Jets didn't think Sanchez could take it, they wouldn't have dealt up to get him, and they certainly wouldn't have guaranteed him $28 million after he had started just 16 games at USC. It was a gamble, sure. But the Jets had a hunch on this one.

"We felt like being in LA, in a similar media market, would give him something coming here that a lot of players didn't have," Tannenbaum said. "Until you go through it, you don't know. But we felt like that background would give him the best chance to succeed."

Now is not the time to coronate Sanchez. He might be sold short when left out of some of the conversations about the most promising quarterbacks in the league (promise is one thing he has in abundance), but Sanchez still isn't consistent enough to be elite.

He has completed just 55.1 percent of his passes, and that's a number that has to get better. After going without a pick in his first five games this year, he has thrown seven in his last five. And just as he has had passer ratings above 100 in four games, he has also been at or below 60 on four occasions.

But if the quarterback position does boil down to wins and losses, then Sanchez is in good shape, at 8-2. Just as important, with that late-game moxie he's shown, the Jets are starting to win because of him, where they have done so despite him at times in the past.

Sanchez has a meager fourth-quarter paasser rating of 64.3, yet consistently seems to come through with the big throw. In Denver, it was giving Holmes a chance to draw the game-changing pass-interference penalty. In Detroit, it was rebounding from a 20-10 deficit, leading a 47-yard drive to set up the tying field goal, and finding Holmes for 52 yards in OT. In Cleveland, it was feeding Holmes again, for a 37-yard overtime touchdown to win. And on Sunday, it was a majestic 42-yard bomb to Braylon Edwards, to set up another connection with Holmes, this time for 6 yards and the 6 points the Jets needed.

Rex Ryan said after the Texans game that, "great competitors, they want the ball in crucial situations, and that's the way Mark is." That's one reason why they drafted him in the first place.

Back when the Jets went to work him out in the spring of 2009, at Sanchez's high school -- Mission Viejo, in Orange County, Calif. -- the final thing they had him do was throw the ball as far as he could. They told him beforehand how far bazooka-armed Josh Freeman had thrown it in his workout, then sent Sanchez to the goal line.

His throw beat Freeman's by 1 yard, and if you ask the Jets, there was more to that than distance. That was just one of the intangible type of things he showed on that high school field that left the New York brass convinced enough to invest so heavily in Sanchez weeks later.

USC guys have carried a stigma of being "Hollywood" over the last few years, and while Sanchez had that look, the Jets knew they were getting something different. All the work he did this offseason, even after surgery and into his inviting his receiving group to work out in California, reveals that.

"We knew 1,000 percent that he loved football," said Tannenbaum. "The fame, the adulation, all that didn't matter to him. We knew he loved football, and just being around it from talking to everyone there. He wasn't the starter when he was a freshman, but did everything to be successful. And he came from a great family, too. His dad could've retired after 25 years as a fireman, but went 32.

"You never know, but we felt great about the investment."

Just like Sanchez's confidence in himself, the Jets' assuredness hasn't wavered.

What they have right now isn't Tom Brady or Peyton Manning reincarnated in a 24-year-old. But with the team around him, that's not what Sanchez needs to be.

He has been good enough, veteran guard Brandon Moore says, to "make other guys realize, 'I have to carry my weight.' "

Because now, after all the ups and downs, that's just what Sanchez is doing.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @albertbreer.

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