Thursday, March 19, 2009

What Dreams May Come 2009 - Mark Sanchez

Oh Timbaland - Timbaland
Maybe it’s my east coast bias, or my general apathy toward the pre-professional football arts school that is USC, but I tend to ignore their stars. Defensively, they produce some of the most interesting physical talents in the draft year after year, but never anyone who seems to bring something new to the narrative, just more talent from a place where talent is in such high supply as to have become ordinary. Furthermore, their highly touted quarterbacks have yet to establish themselves as top tier quarterbacks at the next level, despite all the hype (don’t you DARE say “Carson Palmer” to me…definition of talent without direction, right there). So I was prepared to let Mark Sanchez slip by in this draft unnoticed. Except there’s one nagging question: If this kid is as ordinary as people seem to be making him our to be, why is he rising on everyone’s draft boards while the more physically gifted Matt Stafford slides? Perhaps more importantly, what is it about THIS quarterback that has the unflappable Pete Carroll completely flapped at the thought of not being able to watch his growth firsthand?

If I had to take a stab at it, there’s something different about Sanchez that neither Leinart nor Palmer has been able to develop: Success under pressure. Face it; Booty folded under expectations, Palmer had it easy, and Leinart was America’s favorite golden boy for his entire college career. The result on the pro level? An increasingly frustrated superstar who panics whenever he’s behind and a benchwarmer with no fight left in him (face facts…if he wanted it, he’d have asked for a trade when they re-upped Warner). Sanchez, on the other hand, moves differently. Maybe it’s the result of coming after two USC legends, or maybe it’s the fact that college football’s attention has drifted inward from the coasts, but Sanchez carries himself with none of the dignity that we saw from his predecessors. What we get instead is a guy who feels himself being chased, both figuratively thanks to expectations of his status and literally thanks to a penchant for moving around in and out of the pocket. Learning to live in that chase is what makes Sanchez’s game so interesting to watch, and has me wondering what he could do on a pro level, where learning to deal with fast moving pressure (again, both figurative and literal) is pretty much the road every young quarterback must follow.

Watch his throws, and the one thing that stands out is that he never seems to doubt that he will put the ball exactly where he is supposed to put the ball, no matter who’s behind him or what’s in front of him. Moving or not moving, panicking or standing tall, threading needles or finding open reads, the game just moves differently for Sanchez in that it never seems to change its speed for him. Wonder why Carroll is so pissed off? It’s because the hardest thing for any quarterback to learn, that the speed of the game shouldn’t affect the way you respond, comes second nature to a guy who learned early that pressure becomes real only the moment we acknowledge that it can affect us. Given one more year, you have to imagine that a coach like Carroll could have given him the smarts to make the best use of the gifts Sanchez had learned to rely on regardless of the situation. It isn’t that he doesn’t care; it’s that he doesn’t worry.

Instead, Sanchez has once again placed himself into the chase, with Carroll throwing him out of the good graces of NFL-lite University and pundits questioning whether a year of demonstrating the ability to consistently succeed outweighs Matt Stafford’s multi-year reign of consistent blah. In short, the world once again thinks Mark Sanchez has something to prove. What makes all of this interesting to me is that for once we have someone who neither thrives on pressure nor bows to it; instead, it just doesn’t exist. Watching that mentality play out on the next level, particularly with a quarterback who makes use of his feet, will be an interesting experiment in distinguishing apathy from understanding with regard to how the game is played under center.

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