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Mark Sanchez prepares to face Jets fans' negative energy

After being drafted by the New York Jets with the No. 5 pick, the former USC quarterback is about to experience a whole new level of pressure, from one of sports' most demanding and impatient fan bases.

May 04, 2009|Sam Farmer

So what's the pressure on USC's Mark Sanchez going to be like now that he's playing quarterback for the New York Jets?

Boomer Esiason can give him a hint.

Fifteen years ago after an especially disappointing loss to Miami, Esiason, then the Jets' quarterback, was making the seven-mile drive from the Meadowlands back to Manhattan.

While he was slogging through stop-and-go traffic at the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel, the car next to him was violently rear-ended. The quarterback threw his car into park, hopped out and ran to the woman whose car had been hit. She was wearing, of all things, an Esiason jersey, and was utterly shocked when he rapped on her window to check on her.

"Are you OK?" he said, trying to keep calm. "Are you OK?"

"Boomer? Is that you?" she asked the good Samaritan, sounding disoriented. "I think I'm OK, but . . ."

But what?

"But you guys sucked."

Welcome to the New York Jets, Mark, where frustration is measured in decades, and quarterback grace periods are as leisurely as shotgun honeymoons. Sanchez won't be holding a clipboard for long behind Kellen Clemens, if at all, considering the way the Jets traded up to the fifth spot to draft him.

Sanchez passed his first test with flying colors. At his first practice with the Jets, Friday at the team's rookie camp, he wowed his new coaches by learning all 18 plays he was shown, rather than accepting the scaled-down alternative he was offered.

"There was some guy who we have who got the entire offense together and installed the base offense," new Coach Rex Ryan told reporters after the first practice. "I guess you can figure out who that was. That's impressive. That's the kind of young man we brought in here."

Ryan was an assistant coach in Baltimore last season, when the Ravens made the postseason behind the very capable play of first-year quarterback Joe Flacco. So this coach knows what rookies can do at the position.

"Up until last year, there was a stigma that you don't win with a rookie quarterback," Ryan said. "I think we proved that wrong."

Spreading the news

As a few of the franchise's former quarterbacks will attest to, however, the pressure will be on the rookie to step right into one of the unique jobs in professional sports and win. Win now.

"Once you get to the aspect of playing quarterback there, it's a totally different realm," said Ray Lucas, a Jets quarterback from 1997 through 2000. "It's like Frank Sinatra said: If you can make it there, you'll make it anywhere."

Lucas grew up in New Jersey, as did Neil O'Donnell, a Jets quarterback who came before him. Both said they expect Sanchez to do well but emphasized this is worlds removed from the comfortable cocoon of USC.

"You're never prepared for it," O'Donnell said. "If you think you are, you aren't. Even when you're winning, it's still, 'But . . .' You still have to answer that, 'But . . .'

"With the fans and the expectations, it's almost like they want you to fall on your face. You have to fight to even not stumble. Because it's an easy story for them -- same old Jets, same old blown draft picks, same old blown free agents. It's a broken record."

O'Donnell thought he was prepared for the adjustment when he signed with the Jets as a free agent in 1996, fresh off a Super Bowl loss as quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was pretty sure he had seen and been through it all.

So it wasn't surprising to him that a large group of reporters was there for his introductory news conference. The eye opener was that same large group gathered in front of his locker after every practice.

"When you go to your locker after a regular Wednesday practice in the middle of the season, there are 15 beat writers wanting your time," said O'Donnell, who now lives in Tennessee, where he finished his career with the Titans.

"You're never prepared for that. Usually most teams have three, four, five, maybe at the most six guys that want to get a little sound bite from the starting quarterback. But in New York it's 10 to 15 guys around your locker every time you come out there."

Fans never sleep

As tenacious as the New York media might be, the most scathing critiques come from the fans -- the same ones who were cheering like madmen at Radio City Music Hall when the Jets selected Sanchez.

The young quarterback heard a bit of that last week while stuck in Manhattan traffic on his way to Esiason's show. Radio callers were complaining about the New York Mets so vehemently, dissecting every detail of their latest loss, some even suggesting the team was trying to lose, that Sanchez later remarked about it to Esiason.

Said Esiason: "I told him, 'You haven't heard anything. The first time your ball gets caught up in a wind gust at the Meadowlands, they're going to say your arm's not strong enough. They'll be comparing you to Chad Pennington, and that you're no Joe Namath.' "

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