He was not, as they say, Broadway Joe. But he was young and dashing and the star quarterback of one of the city’s two NFL teams. The cameras loved to find him, and he looked like a man who loved to be found. His smile glowed. His name pulsed from gossip pages in boldface type.
“He played his best football in the playoffs for us,” says Redskins offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh, who was the Jets’ quarterbacks coach in those years.
In Sanchez’s first two NFL seasons, he won four playoff games, beat the Colts in Indianapolis, the Patriots in New England and came within a combined 18 points of two separate Super Bowl trips. Then, as quickly as it came, the winning went away. He became famous not for his celebrity but for a comical misplay unflatteringly known as “the butt fumble.” He bounced from New York to Philadelphia to Denver to Dallas to Chicago to sitting back home in Orange County, Calif., this fall, nine years after the rise, wondering whether he should bother practicing for one final NFL chance he wasn’t sure was going to come.
And now, this week, he sits on a stool in the Redskins’ locker room, surrounded by men whose names he doesn’t fully know. He has a new play sheet in his locker stall and all the hopes of a 6-6 team in a free fall that desperately needs him to lead it to the playoffs as if this were 2009 and 2010 all over again. His first start in two years will come against another New York team — the Giants — and somehow it seems fitting that the fallen New York sensation will try to get everything back in front of the New York media that helped make and then break him.
Hunched on his stool, staring across this crazy chance that came from nowhere, he starts to laugh.
“It’s just an incredible experience,” he says. “This just makes me appreciate it even more now that I’m here. From home to [signing with the Redskins] a couple weeks ago to getting ready to start a game to making a playoff push again. What else can you dream of? It’s cool.”
Maybe Sanchez is exactly what Washington needs in the chaos of a once-promising season gone bad, with two quarterbacks breaking legs two weeks apart and two sets of starting guards going down in separate games. Who better to navigate the ruins than the quarterback who crashed from Page 6 darling to national punchline and somehow survived the fall?
“He’s a veteran guy,” Redskins Coach Jay Gruden says with a mix of hope and resignation. “I think he’ll do the best he can.”
Looking back, Sanchez must wonder if it all came too fast. The Jets traded for him in the first round of the 2009 draft, then made him their starter before he had a chance to understand what it meant. Some men at 22 are ready for this, but Sanchez’s mother still did his laundry while he played quarterback at USC. A team of handlers and publicists hovered around him, ready to book interviews and pick up his dry cleaning.
He didn’t have to do much on his own except try to play quarterback during the day and be Mark Sanchez at night. At times it worked. At times it didn’t. But somehow the Jets won, and that’s all that really mattered. He lived, for a time, at Donald Trump’s New Jersey resort. Broadway wanted to make a show about him. When then-Jets coach Rex Ryan was photographed shirtless on vacation with a tattoo on his arm of his own wife clad in nothing but a Sanchez jersey … well, it was just another moment of an outrageous time.
“I feel like some of that stuff was glamorized and sensationalized because it was New York and because we were winning and because the team had such a polarizing feel, you know?” Sanchez says now, sitting at his locker. “So it was like: Oh, you know if you go out or you date somebody, it was like you’re out every night. ‘He dates everybody!’ ”
“Same thing with the season,” he continues. “You’re either the best or you’re the worst. There’s no average, right? There’s no median, middle of the road, there’s none of that in New York. So I think some of that stuff took on a life of its own — on and off the field. It was amazing, some of that stuff. My family was like: ‘Did this happen?’ I’d say: ‘No, I don’t know where that came from.’ ”
So much has happened in that near-decade since he left USC, he says with a sigh. Someday, he just might write a book. There is so much left, he says, that nobody knows.
What are some of the craziest things that have happened? he is asked.
“Oh, dude, you don’t have enough time on that [tape] recorder,” he says.
This recorder can hold 45 hours.
“Like I said,” he replies, “you don’t have enough time.”
Sitting on a bench just outside the Redskins' practice facility, Cavanaugh nods. As the man who worked every day with Sanchez, he saw it all. And there was a lot to see.
“Did he have to grow up? Sure he did,” Cavanaugh says. “Think about it: You’re 22 years old, you’re handed a bunch of money, and you’re the number one quarterback on the team, and you’re a Day 1 starter, and life’s looking pretty rosy. You’re in a big media market in New York City, and everybody’s talking about you, and you’re on the cover of every magazine and newspaper. There’s a lot on your plate, and if you don’t have everybody’s version of success, then you’re going to be susceptible to being criticized.
“And when all was said and done, we didn’t win a championship, and his last few years there were not productive.”
Then on Thanksgiving 2012, in a game against the Patriots, he turned the wrong way while trying to hand the ball to a running back, whipping back around to run forward and salvage the play. In doing so, he bumped himself and the ball against the backside of his guard, Brandon Moore. The collision jarred the ball from his hands, knocking it to the ground. New England’s Steve Gregory snatched it up and ran the other way for a touchdown.
Sanchez started just four more games for New York after the butt fumble, and 10 others over the next four seasons with Philadelphia and Dallas. By the time he was done with the Bears last spring, following a four-game PED suspension for a substance he claimed he did not know was banned, he was finished. No longer boldface, his name brought giggles and eye rolls.
Maybe Sanchez should be angry, flustered by a career narrative he never got to write himself. Instead he smiles. He tells jokes about the butt fumble. He playfully smacks the behind of a sportswriter who hesitantly asked him about the play.
“Listen,” he says. “I’ve learned through this whole thing that when you sign up for it, you sign up for everything. Everything. The good, the bad, the ugly, criticism, the fame. If there’s one second that I complain for that, shoot me dead.”
Without football he wouldn’t have been a sensation. Without football he wouldn’t have had Broadway or the Knicks or the front and back pages. He thinks about the night they beat the Colts in the playoffs and there was a problem with the team bus, so he went back into the stadium with his nephew. Together they played catch on that very field where the whole country had watched him win a game no one had expected him to win.
And the price for that is a butt fumble?
“Come on, man, let’s get real, it’s been an incredible ride,” he says. “I loved every second. Honestly. And my dad said it too: ‘There’s a million people who would love to do everything you experienced.’ Everything. Because it is so fun. I’m so fortunate and so blessed. I wouldn’t change a thing. It’s been too good.”
You want humiliation? How about being a Mexican American quarterback from Southern California, suddenly a hero to Latino fans everywhere, and not being able to speak Spanish? That, Sanchez says, was real shame. There were a lot of Spanish language journalists around the Jets in those days, all of them wanting to write about the quarterback with the Mexican name who had taken his team to the brink of the Super Bowl.
But Sanchez was third-generation American. Spanish was never spoken in his home. So when the cameras from Univision and Telemundo came to his locker, he could only gaze into the lens and mumble words in English.
“It was embarrassing,” he says. “I was like Ritchie Valens in ‘La Bamba,’ just freeze up, and I had nothing.”
During that third year with the Jets, he bought a Spanish course on tape and listened to it every day as he drove back and forth to the team’s facility. “The best thing I’ve ever done,” he says. He was learning, growing, thinking about what life after football might bring, even as his career was starting to careen. He threw for 3,474 yards in 2011 and never more than 3,000 again. By the time he was finished with the Bears, he had exactly as many career interceptions, 86, as touchdowns. That will never win anything in the NFL.
Those who know him best say Sanchez always wanted to be good. Giants Coach Pat Shurmur, who was his offensive coordinator in Philadelphia, remembers a player who diligently drew the team’s plays on index cards, writing the names on the backs of each one. “Very studious,” Shurmur says.
“When all is said and done, he just wants to play football and help the team win,” Cavanaugh says.
Sanchez knows he wouldn’t be here if the Redskins hadn’t been so desperate when Alex Smith went down last month and the team needed an emergency backup. He was Washington’s safe signing because he had worked with Cavanaugh and Bill Callahan, assistant head coach for the offensive line, and was a former Jets teammate of passing game coordinator Kevin O’Connell.
He didn’t know the Redskins’ plays but understood quickly when Cavanaugh explained that certain concepts of Washington’s offense were similar to those in New York, just with different names. He was the emergency option, and when Colt McCoy fractured his fibula against the Eagles, Sanchez was given one more chance to play.
As Cavanaugh has watched Sanchez in recent practices, he recognized the mannerisms of the 22-year-old thrown into the New York fire. But it was no longer a kid straight out of college licking his fingers before every throw but a man wearing the scars of a quarterback sloshed through years of 24-hour news cycles.
“I think he appreciates it now,” Cavanaugh says. “When you’re out of the game, you appreciate how much you liked being there and you don’t take anything for granted. And I think when he was young — again with all the publicity he was getting — with all that was thrown on his shoulders to represent the franchise, I think it was a bit much for him.
“I think he knows now how much the game means to him and how much the game means to other people, and he takes it very serious.”
One of the lessons Sanchez took from Pete Carroll, his head coach at USC, was to always treat everyone well. You never know who you might meet again, Carroll would say. And as Sanchez moved the Redskins downfield late in the first half Monday in Philadelphia, he caught the eye of Washington’s special teams coordinator, Ben Kotwica, who used to coach for the Jets. Back then he used to look to Kotwica, asking how close he needed to get the team for New York’s kicker to confidently attempt a field goal.
Now he was doing it again, shouting toward Kotwica, “What do we got to get to?”
“The 35 … 31 would be nice!” Kotwica yelled back.
Thinking about this as he sits on his stool in a still strange locker room, a wistful look slides across Sanchez’s face.
Almost 10 years on, and so much is the same, even though everything has changed.
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