New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez works out at Mission Viejo High School… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)
Just because the NFL is encountering its most turbulent time in decades, that doesn't mean all Jets are grounded.
Quite the opposite.
More than a dozen members of the New York Jets are participating in an informal passing camp in Mission Viejo this week, organized by Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez. The quarterbacks, receivers and running backs — without the help of the franchise — are breaking down video from last season, poring over cobbled-together playbooks, then throwing and catching on the field at Mission Viejo High, Sanchez's alma mater.
So Tuesday, as the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals was announcing it had fast-tracked the NFL's appeal and will hear it June 3, Sanchez was working with teammates that included veterans such as LaDainian Tomlinson, Dustin Keller and Brad Smith, as well as several first-year players.
"If you have a rookie quarterback who has never learned the system, there's no way you could put on a camp like this," said Sanchez, the former USC star whose Jets came one victory away from the Super Bowl in each of the past two seasons. "If you don't know who's going to be your starter, it's very difficult to put on a camp like this. We're fortunate that way. We're trying to take every advantage we can and try to win one more game.
"If this helps us win one playoff game, get one game at home in the playoffs, whatever it takes, then it's really paid off."
Although the practices are largely informal — with players in shorts, T-shirts and baseball caps — they're purposeful and well organized, an impressive substitute for what would be a post-draft minicamp had the NFL not locked out the players. Sanchez has nicknamed the sessions "Jets West," complete with a logo featuring a Jet flying between the Manhattan skyline on one side and palm trees on the other.
"We're going over protections, formations, shifts, motions, pretty much in that order," he said. "Then we get into play concepts, runs, and pass concepts.… We go through any questions, talk about things that we need to, crack a few jokes in the middle, and then come out on the field and work on it."
Sanchez organized a similar camp last July (the summer after his rookie season) because he wanted to work on timing with the receivers who couldn't work with him in the spring while he recovered from shoulder surgery. That camp attracted the scrutiny of the NFL, however, when the league learned Coach Rex Ryan and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer had stopped by to watch practice sessions, which is against league rules. An unnamed team had filed a complaint.
If a player were hurt at the camp, the team wouldn't be obligated to pay anything. Since the collective bargaining agreement expired, NFL players have been responsible for their insurance coverage.
"They understand the risks they're taking," Sanchez said. "But at the same time they need to work out, and they know that, and they'd be working out at home."
Even if there were no lockout, the Jets franchise could not play a role in the camp, meaning Sanchez would have to book a field, provide the footballs, and coordinate everything. But the fact he cannot have contact with the team makes matters even more challenging.
"The toughest part with this lockout is trying to get phone numbers," he said. "We can't call anybody.… We're going through agents, going through other agents that know somebody's uncle, reminding them that we have Jets West going."
Sanchez said he can envision holding this type of camp every off-season, and his family plays a big role. His parents and two brothers have helped arrange sponsors, including those that provide food, drinks and apparel for the players. The group goes to a Lakers game, and most of the Jets stay at a beachside resort, with some players bringing their families. The trainers at Mission Viejo High also have helped, setting up massive ice tubs for the players, as has Mission Viejo Coach Bob Johnson.
"Just seeing Coach Johnson every day, he's in there making sure we have an overhead projector, throwing guys water during the meetings, passing out pencils, and he doesn't have to do any of that," Sanchez said. "So we're pretty fortunate to have him helping us."
The players are serious about getting work done, not mingling with fans and signing autographs. That didn't seem to bother the small scattering of spectators — at one point there were 17 of them — putting up with the borderline uncomfortable heat to watch from the stands. Sanchez has started a Facebook page (www.facebook.com/OfficialMarkSanchez) to post behind-the-scenes pictures and videos from Jets West.
The concept of a quarterback being a coach on the field is nothing new. Now, though, his teammates get to see Sanchez leading meetings, organizing drills, dispensing advice … basically doing the types of things a coach would do. And they've been impressed.
"If you ask Mark if he'd been able to do this a couple years ago, he'd probably tell you no," Tomlinson said. "He sounds like a coach in the meeting room, telling everybody what to do and what to expect. Even watching the film, he sounds like a coach.
"And really that's what your quarterback is."