‘A Completely Different Guy Right Now’
PHILADELPHIA — Mark Sanchez hadn’t been giddy on a football field since, when, exactly?
Most of us had forgotten. He’d forgotten. Until Monday night, when something as simple as handing the ball off to LeSean McCoy for a 1-yard touchdown sent him into a tizzy. He fist-pumped. He double fist-pumped. He raced up behind Jeremy Maclin to hip-check the wide receiver. McCoy’s score gave the Eagles a 31-point lead in their 45-21 blowout over the Panthers, and though his joy seemed familiar, it was hard to remember the last time Sanchez had been on the smiling side of such a lopsided game.
Nearly two years after his last NFL start, the quarterback formerly known as “Sanchize” completed 20 of 37 passes for 332 yards, two touchdowns and a 102.5 passer rating. But let’s be reasonable: It’s far too early to say he’s revived his career as a starter. It takes more than one win against a woeful Carolina team to call it a comeback. But in his first full game filling in for an injured Nick Foles, who broke his collarbone in Week 9, Sanchez did something that he never accomplished in five seasons with the Jets: He threw for at least 300 yards with no turnovers. “It’s hard to look at Mark Sanchez as a backup,” McCoy said after the game.
It’s easy to think the performance was merely a product of Chip Kelly’s quarterback-friendly offense. But doing so wouldn’t be fair to Sanchez, who rehabbed more than just an injured throwing shoulder over the past year. After his butt-fumble-defined Jets career came to a disappointing end, the former first-round pick was given an intervention of sorts that sparked a change in attitude, renewed his focus on faith and made football fun again.
In a quiet moment at his locker after the game, Sanchez reflected on his fall from grace in New York. It was now early Tuesday morning, his 28th birthday, when he said, “It was the worst and best thing, maybe, that could have happened.”
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The intervention came in the form of a Wednesday lunch meeting in early January, not long after the Jets had finished 8-8 and seemed ready to move on without Sanchez. Todd Norman, who has trained Sanchez since he was a top quarterback prospect at Mission Viejo High in California, set up the meeting at a restaurant on the beach in Orange County. Another client of Norman’s sat at the table. “It is one thing for me to say certain things to Mark as his trainer and his friend,” Norman says, “but I wanted him to hear from someone else. A pro athlete who has been in the game for a long time, made a lot of money and had a lot of success. Not even a football player. Just someone outside of his immediate world. Someone Mark has respect for.”
Norman wouldn’t divulge the other athlete’s name, but together they interrogated Sanchez. He was weak and out of shape after missing the 2013 season with a torn labrum, and he fully expected to be released by New York. He was at a crossroads, and Norman wanted to make sure Sanchez understood the stakes of his impending free agency.
“I told him, ‘Look, you might get one more opportunity,’ ” Norman says. “This was a defining offseason for him. This was a situation where you either break through or go downhill from here. And I tell you what, I’ve seen him go through so much stuff in his career, I wouldn’t blame him if he wanted to quit football.”
“I told him he needed to shave his beard and cut his hair,” Norman says of Sanchez’s intervention. “I said, ‘Hey, you need to look like a professional, and right now you don’t look like a starting quarterback in the NFL.’ ”
Norman often asks clients to rate how challenging exercises are on a scale of 1 to 100, and he used that same approach to assess Sanchez’s mindset. “How important is football to you?” he asked. “How badly do you want to be a starting quarterback in the NFL?”
Sanchez’s answer: 110. But that Norman even had to ask was more telling.
“He’s going to kill me for saying this, but when we had that first meeting, I told him he needed to shave his beard and cut his hair,” Norman says. “I said, ‘Hey, you need to look like a professional, and right now you don’t look like a starting quarterback in the NFL.’ Mark is a good-looking guy, and he just didn’t look like he was keeping himself together. To me, that was part of his rebirth. Making a complete change, even in his appearance.”
Where did it all go wrong?
The fifth pick in the 2009 draft, Sanchez took the Jets to back-to-back AFC Championship Games in his first two seasons. He was the good-looking, charming and bilingual star from USC, and comparisons to Joe Namath were easy to make. But in 2011, Sanchez’s third season, everything began to unravel.
Going against Rex Ryan’s ground-and-pound philosophy, the Jets tried opening up their offense despite not having receivers who could stretch the field. Making matters worse, Sanchez was pulled in different directions by his offensive coordinator, Brian Schottenheimer, who ran a Don Coryell-inspired system, and his position coach, Matt Cavanaugh, a disciple of Bill Walsh. After the Jets lost three straight to close out the season and miss the playoffs, LaDainian Tomlinson declared the rift between Sanchez and wideout Santonio Holmes to be “as bad as I’ve ever been around.” That the Jets had a top-five defense and a struggling offense only increased tensions in the locker room.
It got even worse in 2012, when the Jets’ trade for Tim Tebow didn’t have the intended rise-to-the-challenge effect on Sanchez and the offense. “Selling seats, man,” was how Sanchez, in a rare moment of public frustration that fall, half-jokingly explained the organization’s rationale. Then the infamous butt fumble happened on Thanksgiving. Sanchez gave the ball away 26 times that season, including five in a particularly ugly Monday night loss to the Titans, after which he was benched. By season’s end the coaches’ trust in their onetime franchise quarterback had reached a nadir.
It’s a big reason why the Jets drafted Geno Smith in the second round of the 2013 draft, and why Sanchez was still playing late in the Jets’ fourth preseason game against the Giants in August of that year. Despite outplaying Smith in training camp, Sanchez was sent out to further prove himself behind an offensive line comprising second- and third-stringers. The shoulder injury he suffered in the fourth quarter, on a hit delivered by Marvin Austin, turned out to be the final play of his Jets career.
“He’s seen almost the highest highs, and a pretty low end of the spectrum, too,” says older brother Brandon, the middle of the three Sanchez boys. “New York will do that. New York gives you anything and everything you want—and anything and everything you don’t want at the same time.”
Sanchez publicly cheered on Smith while rehabbing his shoulder. But when he returned home to California last Christmas Eve, he seemed to be in disrepair: He could only toss a light rehab football, and he looked bedraggled. He’d been growing his hair out for Locks for Love, but Norman came to fear that Sanchez’s appearance reflected his internal feelings.
“He likes to have fun in life, and he makes it fun for everyone else. And yeah, the last few years, a lot of that fun has been taken away, just because he has been through a lot of stress,” Norman says. “He is a completely different guy right now. He’s happy. And not that he wasn’t happy before—I am not saying he was depressed or anything. He was just being so challenged. Like many of us in life, he was going through some tough times, and he found a way to get himself out of it.”
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Sanchez looked every bit the part of a Chip Kelly quarterback on Monday night. He evaded pass rushers with precision footwork, often giving himself more time, as he did on a 21-yard throw to Brent Celek that set up the Eagles’ first touchdown. He had the stamina to lead a 10-play, 91-yard touchdown drive in just 3:35, a pace so fast that even the officials couldn’t keep up and had to blow a snap dead. His first touchdown pass came on the run, with Sanchez rolling left and perfectly placing the football in front of Jordan Matthews and away from the defender. Afterward, Sanchez spread his arms out in celebration like a jet plane. Or an Eagle.
Getting Sanchez to this point required an entire rebuild, starting with his arm strength. When he signed a one-year deal with the Eagles in March, his throwing shoulder wasn’t yet healthy. He didn’t feel 100%, in fact, until a few weeks before training camp, when he let a ball rip 70 yards. “There it is,” he told Norman.
After becoming an Eagle, most of Sanchez’s workouts with Norman and Bob Johnson, his coach at Mission Viejo, focused on sharpening the skills he’d need to run Philadelphia’s up-tempo offense. He wore an elevation mask that restricted his breathing during drills, forcing him to take deeper and more controlled breaths. He hooked up resistance bands to his feet so he could enhance his agility and quickness in the pocket. He also started practicing hot yoga up to three times a week, which helped him recharge physically and mentally.
“He likes the spotlight, the stage,” Sanchez’s brother, Brandon, says. “It’s funny how he’s gone from hero to zero to hero so quick.”
The pressures of playing in New York took a toll on Sanchez. At times he seemed uptight or beaten down, if not outright defeated. But he didn’t arrive in Philadelphia with the same expectations. He was also joining a team that has a clear offensive identity linked directly to its head coach—a far cry from the three offensive coordinators he had in five years with the Jets. During the Eagles’ preseason, Sanchez turned heads not only with his 80.6% completion rate, but also for his relaxed demeanor that had all but disappeared in New York. He’s back to making it fun for everyone. At one point, Sanchez bought an autographed photo of Napoleon Dynamite, Foles’ doppelganger, and hung it in the quarterbacks’ meeting room.
But there is also a serious side to Sanchez, who credits a renewed reliance on his spirituality for giving him perspective and direction. He began attending services led by Miles McPherson, a former NFL player who is now the pastor of The Rock Church in San Diego. Sanchez and his mother spoke daily about faith. In March, at the suggestion of former Jets teammate D’Brickashaw Ferguson, he attended the Pro Athletes Outreach conference for Christian athletes.
“When you lose what you love, you see what this whole thing is really about,” Sanchez says. “There’s more to life than football. And it’s hard to see that when you’re playing and things aren’t going right and you are trying so hard and preparing so hard, and it just doesn’t work. That’s a tough feeling. People ask, ‘What’s it like getting back?’ It was such a long road, but it was a ton of rehab, a ton of working out, a ton of family time, and a ton of prayer.”
Under his No. 3 jersey on Monday night, Sanchez wore a thin silver necklace. It had a charm inscribed with the Hebrew word Yeshua. That matched with a lesson in one of McPherson’s online sermons that Sanchez watched on Sunday: God goes by many names. Provider. Deliverer. Comforter.
“He will always do those things for us. He can’t not do those things,” Sanchez says, relaying a teaching he kept in mind during his year away from the field. “It will always work out. It will work out. It’s gonna work out.”
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For now, Mark Sanchez is the starting quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles, a 7-2 team that has a very good shot at making the playoffs. A lot has changed since 2012. He owns a home now. He has a chocolate lab, named Oso, the Spanish word for bear. He has the trust of a locker room and a coaching staff that thought him too valuable to play in the fourth preseason game.
After OTAs in June, Brandon Sanchez recalls, Mark arrived home happy that Chip Kelly and the coaches wanted him on their team. “That was almost like a success,” Brandon says. “It’s not an AFC Championship Game or anything like that. But that was a mini-accomplishment, a mini-goal. I think that helped him get through.”
As well as Sanchez played Monday night, his performance brings questions: Will it last? And what happens when Foles, sidelined for six to eight weeks, is healthy? The road ahead won’t be easy. The Eagles’ final seven games include four NFC East division matchups, two against the second-place Cowboys, and conference games against the Packers and Seahawks. For once, though, Sanchez seems capable of shutting out all the noise and focusing on what must be done.
“I think when you take a step back, you appreciate it so much and you miss it so much,” Sanchez said after Monday’s game. “I just kept telling myself when I was out that if I get a chance to go back out there, I don’t ever want to be out again until I retire.”
It was nearly 1 a.m. when Sanchez left Lincoln Financial Field. His birthday an afterthought, he wanted to celebrate his first victory in Philly in the most Philly way possible: with a cheesesteak. A local news camera was there to capture the scene at, of all places, Geno’s Steaks. Smiling and screaming fans shared their cheese fries and snapped selfies with Sanchez. He comported himself in the manner of a starting quarterback, the steward of a franchise, shaking hands with every worker in the shop.
“He likes the spotlight, the stage,” Sanchez’s brother, Brandon, says. “It’s so funny how he’s gone from hero to zero to hero so quick. But that’s the nature of the business.”