The Great and Final Hour of Mark Sanchez

On September 11th, 2011, a nation gathered to remember the 10th anniversary of its darkest day. It was a cold, rainy day in New York. It was the type of day that foreshadowed the coming of autumn and a stark contrast to the sun-drenched sky of September 11th, 2001. President Barack Obama gave a memorial at the newly-constructed September 11th Memorial at the site of Ground Zero. Similar gatherings were held in Washington.

But while it was a somber day, the country was buzzing with excitement for an event which seemed like it would be an impossibility during the dog days of summer. The NFL season would have its first Sunday slate of games. The owners and the Players Association had been embattled in a bitter lockout which lasted from March until the end of July. The New York Giants would open their season in the nation’s capital, but the Jets would win the honor of hosting the Sunday night game against the Dallas Cowboys.

Four years ago, Mark Sanchez had it all. Selected by the New York Jets with the fifth overall pick in the 2009 NFL, he and rookie head coach Rex Ryan inherited an under-performing team from a disillusioned Brett Favre and the tactically inept Eric Mangini. With a few additions to their defense and the emergence of an all-time great in Darrelle Revis, the Jets defense transformed into a monster.

But after a strong start, Sanchez stumbled in mid-season. The Jets lost by three points to Buffalo on a blustery October day when Sanchez threw five interceptions. After a four interception performance against New England right before Thanksgiving, the Jets sat 4-7, with only one win since the end of September, and a long shot to make the playoffs.

But through otherworldly intervention and the Indianapolis Colts’ refusal to play Peyton Manning (they had the AFC’s best record locked up), the Jets won four of their last five games and made it to the playoffs. They controlled the Cincinnati Bengals to win the Wild Card Playoff game a week after trouncing them in the final week of the season. A week later, Darrelle Revis’ game-changing interception and Nate Kaeding’s three missed field goals  allowed the Jets to break San Diego’s heart. Injuries to their secondary brought them down against the Colts in the Conference Championship game, but the future was bright.

The following season, Sanchez cut down his interceptions. After throwing 20 in his rookie campaign, the quarterback threw only 13 the following season, and didn’t throw his first one until Week 6. The Jets were 9-2 when December began. But then, a shellacking against New England followed by a 38% completion rate against Miami made Jets fans very nervous. Sanchez bounced back with positive performances against Pittsburgh and Chicago to round out his season. The Jets finished 10-6, locked up a Wild Card spot before the final game of the season, and the young quarterback could relax on the bench for the season finale against Buffalo.

In the playoffs, Sanchez shined again. After Adam Vinatieri drilled a 50 yard field goal to put the Colts up late, Sanchez connected with Braylon Edwards to set-up a game-winning field goal for Nick Folk, who hit his mark to send the Jets through. The following week gave Sanchez the opportunity to avenge an abysmal 45-3 loss to the Patriots in December. Sanchez threw three interceptions in that December loss, but on a clear and cold day in Foxboro in the AFC Divisional Playoffs, history would not repeat itself. Sanchez threw for three touchdown passes, no interceptions, and completed 16 of 25 passes to navigate the Jets to a stunning 28-21 victory. However, the magic would once again end in the AFC Title game, with the Jets sleep-walking through the first half, forcing them to make ferocious second half comeback attempt against Pittsburgh. The attempted comeback was for naught.

The Jets had knocked on the door of the Super Bowl in back-to-back years and were denied. But that was with Sanchez simply managing his way through the games. Fans argued that he had yet to find his full form, and that 2011 was the year that the training wheels would be removed.

Let me tell you my story. My first time visiting New York City bars was on September 11th, 2011. I planned to meet with a few of my friends near mid-town and watch all of the action. Before I left for the train, I put Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising” album onto my iPod. As a burgeoning Bruce fan, I had heard a few tracks from the album, but that day was the first time I listened to the September 11th-inspired album in its entirety. When I got to Penn Station, I decided I’d walk the twelve-or-so blocks north to the first bar we would meet at. It was eerily quiet. It was fairly early, around 11 AM, but considering that New York City nearly never goes mute, the walk up Seventh Avenue was surreal.

We hit our first bar at noon. It had NFL Sunday Ticket, so we were able to watch all of the early games. One by one, we watched anthems and pre-game memorials honoring the country. Before long, I was rooting for Ray Rice to lead my fantasy team to victory, and the games were underway. We watched with awe as Sam Bradford got injured in the first half, in disbelief as the Peyton Manning-less Colts were dismantled, and continued to be thrilled that football was back.

At the end of the early games, we walked a couple of blocks to find our next bar. We found a table and got set to watch the Giants open up their season. Their Week 1 opponent was Washington, led by journeyman quarterback Rex Grossman. The Giants were about to embark on a magical season, but that seemed impossible by the way the Giants played in the second half. Eli Manning threw an interception returned for a touchdown, and Grossman didn’t turn the ball over. Washington, shockingly, defeated the Giants 28-14. At some time during the rout, a group of bagpipers from either a local fire department or police precinct marched into the bar to play “Taps” and “Amazing Grace”. The received a standing ovation from the patrons, who were quickly filling the bar in anticipation for the Sunday night game.

After the evening games concluded, it was time for New York’s time to shine. The Cowboys, like the Jets, entered the season as Super Bowl contenders. Rookie Dez Bryant was pegged to be the missing piece of the puzzle for Tony Romo, and a defense with DeMarcus Ware was always deadly. The Jets returned with their deadly defense, and an offense with LaDanian Tomlinson, Santonio Holmes, and Dustin Keller, as well as an experienced offensive line to support Sanchez.

Very quickly into the game, Dez Bryant announced his arrival to the NFL. A catch and run for 42 yards on the opening drive set the Cowboys up for a quick score, which they made good on when Bryant caught a pass from Romo down by the goal line. The Jets offense stuttered and stopped throughout the first half. Sanchez seemed off on his first three drives. While the Jets defense held Dallas to only another field goal in the first half, the Jets offense didn’t get into the game until right before halftime, when Sanchez went 6-for-7 on a brilliant 2-minute drill drive capped off with a Keller touchdown catch. The Jets were back in the game.

The bar was buzzing. New Yorkers have a nationalistic mentality about their sports teams. And on a night when the Jets were playing the Giants’ fiercest rivals, every New York football fan was pulling for the Jets.

But it didn’t seem to be going the Jets way in the third quarter. After a three-and-out for the Jets on their first drive, Romo found Miles Austin for a 36 yard touchdown strike, and the Cowboys controlled the game again. The Jets responded with a field goal to bring it to within a touchdown, but when Mark Sanchez ended the third quarter by being picked off by Sean Lee who returned it to the goal line (it was originally ruled a touchdown, but overturned) and Felix Jones scored on the second play of the fourth quarter, the game felt finished.

But no less than three minutes later, Sanchez brought his team back. In seven plays, the Jets went down the field, with Sanchez throwing his second touchdown pass of the night, to Plaxico Burress (of all people) playing in his first NFL game since 2008.

But before the Jets fans at the bar could finish clinging their glasses, Jason Witten came up with a 68 yard reception that put the Cowboys back in scoring position. A score would make it a two-possession game with ten minutes remaining. And then Tony Romo arrived. Perhaps the only knock against the Dallas quarterback is his bungled play in late and close games. September 11th, 2011 was about to become a quintessential Romo meltdown.

On third and goal, Romo was pressured in the pocket and he scrambled up the middle. Romo dove, but lost control of the ball as he went down, and Jets defensive lineman Sione Pouha came up with the ball and stopped Dallas from taking control. But the Jets gave back that control on the next drive. After advancing the ball to midfield, the Sanchez was sacked and fumbled the ball away to Dallas.

And then the Universe decided to intervene. The Jets defense held Dallas to a three-and-out with five minutes left. It was plenty of time for the the Jets offense to score once, maybe even twice, and win the game before overtime. But Joe McKnight, a college running back from USC turned special teams member, had different ideas. The speedy McKnight rushed in on punter Mat McBriar and swatted the ball down as it was drop-kicked. Pouncing on it quickly was Isaiah Trufant, who returned the ball all the way for a touchdown.

I remember there were two sets of TVs at the bar. The TVs were not in sync with each other, which meant the one on the other side of the bar was a few seconds ahead of the one I was watching. Before the kick was even blocked, I heard an explosion of cries from behind me. I turned my head without even seeing what had happened, just that a Jet was running all alone into the end zone with the game-tying score.

It was reminiscent of Mike Piazza’s home run at the first baseball game in New York after the attacks, or any one of the miraculous feats the Yankees pulled off in those playoffs. The Jets were going to win this game, and there wasn’t a damned New Yorker who believed otherwise.

The Cowboys went three-and-out, setting the stage for the Jets to finish the game with a winning drive. But the Jets could only advance the ball to their own 30, and had to punt with 1:10 remaining. But Tony Romo’s nightmare wasn’t over. On the first play of the drive, he broke the first rule of quarterbacking: Thou shalt not throw the ball near Darrelle Revis.

Revis intercepted it along the sideline and started running towards victory, getting the ball to the Cowboys 35 yard-line before being forced out of bounds. After a short run and two incompletions, it was up to the foot of Nick Folk, himself a former Cowboy, to send the Jets to victory. There was never a doubt about the power of his leg, but his accuracy, at times, was erratic. But the cold wind that blustered around New York earlier that day had quieted, and the line was straight. Folk booted it, and instantly you knew it was over.

Jets 27 – Cowboys 24.

I just remember dropping to a knee, looking up to the TV to verify what I was seeing, and then screaming loudly. It was the most thrilling moment I’ve ever had as a Jets fan.

Of course, things did not go well from that moment on for Mark Sanchez. He failed to take that next step everyone anticipated he would make. Sanchez threw 18 interceptions that year, and even though the Jets would be 8-5 in mid-December, a three game losing streak where Sanchez did not play well left the Jets on the outside looking in for the playoffs. Sanchez was the starting quarterback for the 2012 season, but the good team that he had inherited had withered away to age and free agency. With no running game to support him, Sanchez failed to control the game through possession, and his mistakes when he went to throw the ball became even more amplified. The Jets went 6-10, and Sanchez’s career in New York was up in smoke.

September 11th, 2011 was the last great moment for Sanchez, and in many way, for all Jets fans. It reminded New Yorkers of the healing quality of sports; how it can unify all of us throughout the darkest of nights. On a day filled with ceremony, tears, and remembrance, it was one game somewhere in the swamps of northern Jersey that reminded New York how powerful sports can be.

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