EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - Mark Sanchez had finished what was his final game as the Eagles' starting quarterback, and perhaps as any kind of Eagles quarterback, and as he walked through a corridor here at MetLife Stadium, people kept stopping him to shake his hand and hug him.
This had been his home stadium for four years when he was with the New York Jets, and there were so many familiar faces stopping to congratulate him after the Eagles' 34-26 victory over the Giants on Sunday. There was Ro Romano, the stadium security officer who had been assigned to the Sanchez family detail, who had walked him to his car after every home game.
There were media members from New York and North Jersey who had covered Sanchez every day since the Jets traded up to draft him with the fifth overall pick in 2009. So many familiar faces. So many memories. Mark Sanchez was thought to be a franchise quarterback then, and the only thing certain about him and his future, based on his performance this season, is that he isn't one.
His statistics, stripped of context, might suggest otherwise. He went 23 for 36 for 292 yards and two touchdowns Sunday, setting the Eagles' single-season record for completion percentage, at 64.1. He threw 14 touchdown passes in nine games, more than he threw in three of his four full seasons with the Jets.
"I've never had games where we completed this many balls," he said. "I feel like I'm seeing things pretty clear - downfield, underneath. My feeling in the pocket is just getting better and better with these guys. So it's been really fun. It's been an awesome experience."
It may have been for him, but for the Eagles, the Sanchez experience this season was revealing, about him and them. They know what he is, and they've seen enough. He threw 11 interceptions and fumbled seven times. He missed open receivers and held the ball too long in the pocket. He made too many mistakes. "Can't lead the league in turnovers," wide receiver Jeremy Maclin said, "and expect to make the playoffs."
Even after Sunday's game, in which Sanchez committed just one turnover, the most praise that Chip Kelly could muster over Sanchez's performance was this: "There were some plays where you're like, 'Wow, that's a hell of a play.' Other times, you'd probably want that one back." If you watched the game, you understood why Kelly was so measured. That 23 for 36 could have been and maybe should have been 33 for 36, and the Eagles seem to understand now that Kelly's system isn't foolproof, that it's only so quarterback-friendly that it can't hide a player's flaws forever.
That's no small understanding for the franchise, and presumably Kelly, to reach. Given what Nick Foles did last season and what Sanchez did through his first five games this season, a kind of mysticism arose around Kelly's influence on quarterbacks. Chip can make it work, no matter what. Even Sanchez's history and acquisition played into that myth. He had become a punch line by the time his career in New York had ended, allowing the Eagles to sign him to a one-year, $2.25 million deal, and if Kelly could elevate Sanchez into a cost-effective, low-risk centerpiece for a championship-caliber team, it would change the way teams search for answers at sports' most important position.
Those consecutive losses to the Seahawks, the Cowboys, and the Redskins - and Sanchez's role in the Eagles' plummet from the NFC playoff race - laid that notion to rest. The Eagles are left with the conventional courses of action in finding a franchise quarterback, then, but only so many are open to them. They haven't bottomed out at the right time since 1999, when they drafted Donovan McNabb, and they have so many other immediate needs (particularly in the secondary) that packaging several draft picks for the sake of moving up to select, say, Marcus Mariota could cripple them for years to come.
So they can try to develop a player they already have, Foles, or they can stand outside in a lightning storm and hold a metal rod in the air.
"It's not easy. You've got to really catch a break," owner Jeffrey Lurie said. "You've got to find the players that are undervalued. That's what happens. Obviously with Aaron [Rodgers], Green Bay got an undervalued player at that point. That has to happen for a franchise to have that type of situation. You're always faced with that. Every team is faced with that. We didn't go from Peyton [Manning] to [Andrew] Luck - let's put it that way."
No, they went from McNabb to Kevin Kolb to Michael Vick to Nick Foles to the man who pumped all those hands and slapped all those backs on his way out of MetLife Stadium on Sunday.
Before Mark Sanchez left, someone asked him whether he'd be willing to return to the Eagles next season, even as a backup, and Sanchez said, "Listen, I'm not going to get into all the hypothetical stuff. I don't know what's going on. All I know is we had an awesome win today." But everyone else, especially the Eagles, knows something more.
Eagles QB Mark Sanchez started the final eight games, and he played three quarters against Houston when Nick Foles went down with a season-ending collarbone injury. Here is a look at Sanchez's numbers Sunday, in December, and in his season as a whole:
Comp.% Yards TD-INT Rtg.
Sunday vs. Giants 63.9 292 2-1 96.1
December 64.9 1,014 6-5 87.1
Season 64.1 2,418 14-11 88.4