Mark Sanchez simply smirked as the question began, knowing what was coming next. The Washington Redskins' latest starting quarterback knows he can’t shake the past and understands that he’ll always be known for one of the more amusing plays in NFL history.
Certain football moments are easily recognizable with one phrase: The Catch, The Drive, The Immaculate Reception.
Sanchez’s moment doesn’t quite have the same glamour: The Butt Fumble.
“I’m not following,” Sanchez deadpanned midway through the question, provoking a round of laughter. “What are you going to do? It was a crappy play in a game where we were getting our butts kicked.”
Sanchez showed off some self-depreciating humor and poked fun back at the reporter for asking a “low-hanging fruit” question. The play will always be associated with the Jets' long-running bad luck, but he did lead the franchise to back-to-back AFC title games in 2009 and 2010.
“Listen, who cares?” Sanchez said. “It’s just one play and move on. I’d prefer to remember the good stuff.”
Sanchez will make his first start since 2015 when he lines up under center for the Redskins against the New York Giants on Sunday, and he does so under less than ideal circumstances. He was signed just over two weeks ago as an emergency backup for Colt McCoy after Alex Smith broke his leg. Then McCoy suffered a broken leg in Monday night’s loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, paving the way for Sanchez’s ascension. He only had about 20 percent of the playbook available to him before Monday’s game, so this week becomes a crash course of preparation.
There are many layers to that preparation. Sanchez is still simply learning the team’s offensive scheme, and that’s before getting into the details of the Redskins' terminology, pre-snap adjustments and protection calls. And then there are the specifics of the Giants' defense.
Making matters even more difficult is the fact that the team’s offensive line is in flux yet again. Left guard Jonathan Cooper, signed off the street when starters Brandon Scherff and Shawn Lauvao suffered season-ending injuries, was placed on injured reserve (biceps) Wednesday, while right guard Tony Bergstrom (ankle) and center Chase Roullier (knee) did not practice. Bergstrom was riding a medical scooter in the locker room.
As the team sorts out its line situation, Sanchez is still getting used to how Washington’s pass-catchers like to run their routes.
“It’s a huge leap playing with guys he doesn’t even know,” Coach Jay Gruden said. “I don’t know if he knows all the guys on our team’s names. … The good thing is he’s played a lot of football in his day. Did a pretty good job against Philly. … We’ve just got to build off that.”
Gruden said the team may be a bit more simplistic in terms of formations and motions, but running the ball, using play-action passes and getting Sanchez outside the pocket should help. The dropback concepts will be schemes that Sanchez is comfortable with, but third-down and red-zone situations could create situations that are particularly challenging.
“As a staff, our job is to tap into what he knows and what he feels comfortable with moving forward while also trying to come up with a plan for what the Giants do,” Gruden said. “It’s not easy for any quarterback, no matter how long you’ve played.”
The Redskins may benefit from facing a 4-8 Giants team that has struggled this season and allowed 378 yards per game (24th in the NFL), although the team’s head coach, Pat Shurmur, has firsthand experience with Sanchez. He was the Eagles' offensive coordinator during the two seasons that Sanchez was with the team in 2014 and 2015.
“He knows how to win and lead,” Shurmur said. “He had that about him in Philadelphia. He’s good at throwing on the run. He’s good at executing from the pocket. We’ve got to look at what they do and just kind of surmise the plays they might run with him.”
This is an opportunity years in the making for Sanchez, as he spent the last three as a little-used backup. His 2017 season was spent as a third-string quarterback in Chicago, where he was mostly asked to be a mentor to then-rookie Mitchell Trubisky. There were no assurances that he’d ever start an NFL game again.
“Two weeks ago it was an unfamiliar position, but really, historically, it’s a familiar position,” Sanchez said. “That’s what makes it fun. You work for something, you pray for something, and then it finally happens. You don’t care what the circumstances are, you’re just happy to get a shot.”