HOUSTON - Nearly two years had gone by since Mark Sanchez threw a live pass in an NFL regular-season game. The last one came on a freezing day in Buffalo as time ran out on the New York Jets in the 2012 season and as time also ran out on Sanchez's term as the starting quarterback.
"It's been a while," Sanchez said Sunday after he replaced Nick Foles and did enough to help the Eagles beat the Texans, 31-21, in a messy, injury-strewn game.
As it happened, Sanchez had a completion streak that remained alive during the 22 months he didn't get on the field. He had completed his last attempt, a deep pass over the middle against the Bills, and he kept the streak going a little while longer after getting in against the Texans on Sunday.
"I was expecting a handoff or a screen, maybe ease my way back in," Sanchez said. "I felt prepared, but you're a little nervous. You want to get that first throw out of the way. Of course, with Chip, it was down the field."
Chip Kelly welcomed Sanchez back by calling for a deep post pattern to Jeremy Maclin on the first play, looking to take advantage of substitutes in the defensive backfield. Naturally, it went for 52 yards, and Sanchez completed his two other attempts of the drive as well, with the last one a delicate pass to the back of the end zone over the shoulder of Jordan Matthews.
It looked like almost a seamless transition from Foles to Sanchez. When an offense doesn't huddle and gets its signals from the sideline, the identity of the quarterback can even be overlooked for a while.
"Actually, I didn't even know Foles was out," tackle Jason Peters said. "[I saw] the bomb to [Jeremy] Maclin, and I turned to congratulate him and it was Sanchez."
That's the way it works in the NFL. Look away for a minute and when you look back, there's someone else standing there. The Eagles know all about that this year, and it might turn out that losing Foles on Sunday wasn't even the most important injury of the day. Linebacker DeMeco Ryans is apparently out for the season with an Achilles injury, and that puts a hole in the middle of the defense.
But when the quarterback goes down, that's where the attention will be directed. Foles fractured his collarbone, according to a league source, when aptly-named Houston linebacker Whitney Mercilus sacked him for the second time in the space of three plays and drove the quarterback's left shoulder into the thin, pitted turf of NRG Stadium.
Recovery time from a broken clavicle depends on the severity and location of the break, and we don't know much yet, but it's a minimum of a month. If accurate, that puts Sanchez in the starting lineup at least through the Thanksgiving game against Dallas. It could easily be longer, too.
"It has to be next-man-up for every position, but when it's the quarterback, it's a little tougher," center Jason Kelce said. "With the quarterback, more people are being affected by the change."
Judging Sanchez on what he did against Houston is probably unfair since he hadn't played in a real game for so long, but he was merely good enough for what had to be done. He threw two touchdowns and two interceptions (one of which wasn't his fault), and that is a pretty fair representation of his professional career, which now shows 70 touchdowns and 71 interceptions.
Getting a full week of practice with the starting unit will help, as will having the advantage of being emotionally prepared for running onto the field against Carolina next Monday. Against the Texans, it was clapping from the sideline one minute and chucking the ball downfield to Maclin the next.
"I might get less reps as a backup, but I am watching the same amount of film, doing the same amount of drills," Sanchez said. "I can't cut corners or I'll get caught off guard out here. This league will expose you, and you have to be ready."
He was ready and he did a professional job, and, let's face it, following Foles isn't as difficult an act this season as it would have been a year ago. Before Mercilus sent him to the locker room, Foles was having another inconsistent day, mixing a deep-strike touchdown pass to Maclin with another ill-advised, back-foot interception while being hit.
Sanchez can at least do that well, even though his history is littered with games in which his accuracy and decision-making were not all that great. He was very good during the exhibition season, but August has always been kinder to Sanchez than November. It will be interesting to see if things are better for him with this team and this system and this coach.
"I said since day one that you better have two quarterbacks in this league," Kelly said. "I don't think we missed a beat offensively."
The Eagles helped out Sanchez by running the ball well against a banged-up Houston defense that was missing some key components and was gassed by the second half of the game. And the Eagles defense did an effective job of keeping the Texans at bay despite a minus-3 takeaway/turnover differential.
So, it was just another win on another day in which a lot of things went wrong. Add it to the growing list. How good will this team be if it gets healthy, stops committing penalties, and holds on to the football?
Maybe we'll never find out, but Mark Sanchez gets his chance to answer the question for at least a month. He's waited a while for the opportunity, and it will be interesting to see what he has to say for himself after all this time.