The new, improved Mark Sanchez?
The Eagles' interim starting QB has renewed confidence, and the confidence of his teammates.
BRAD SMITH was a New York Jet when Mark Sanchez was a budding star, a first-round, fifth-overall draft pick who quarterbacked the Jets to successive AFC Championship Game appearances in Sanchez's first two NFL seasons.
"That team was a lot like this team, those first 2 years. Real tight-knit group," Smith, now an Eagles wideout, said yesterday. "Guys that play for each other - the culture is built for 'We all take care of each other' . . . That's the kind of vibe he's getting [here], and that's why everybody expects him to do well . . . Any player, you get in the right situation and the right environment, it breeds confidence and success."
The Jets' environment changed and so did Sanchez's fortunes, so dramatically that he was released in March after sitting out the 2013 season with a shoulder injury. This is a different offense and a different culture than what that one became, which is why the Eagles think a quarterback with 70 career touchdown passes and 71 interceptions can lead them to the playoffs, at least, while Nick Foles recovers from the broken collarbone he suffered Sunday at Houston.
Until the second quarter Sunday, Sanchez was doing something he'd never done - sitting and watching another quarterback run his team. Yesterday, in his first news conference as the Eagles' starter - which drew a strong contingent of New York and national reporters - he reflected on that experience.
"[I had] a chance to get a bird's-eye view of everything, put that New York experience in its place and take with me a lot of the things that went well, improve upon the things that didn't go so well, so now, hopefully I'm a better version of myself," Sanchez said. "The best version of myself, for this Monday night game.
"It's been a while since I started a game . . . that tests you a little bit. Makes you appreciate it even more."
Sanchez, who turns 28 next week, was asked if he sees an opportunity to forge a future here, to take the starting job. Foles' 10 interceptions and three lost fumbles in the first half of the season were a disappointment.
"As far as next week, next season, I'm really not worried about it," Sanchez said. "I promise you I'm focused on Carolina . . . I got plenty on my mind just this week.
"I'm excited about the opportunity to play. I'm not excited about the way that it happened."
Earlier, offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur called Foles and Sanchez "very similar in terms of understanding our offense and what we want to do . . . I think we can call the game in a very similar way."
Sanchez said last March he came here because he wanted to work in Chip Kelly's offense, that he thought it fit his skills and his mindset.
"I've always enjoyed no-huddle tempo," Sanchez said yesterday. "Some of my best play in New York was in that format . . . Get the next play and go. It feels like a fastbreak in basketball - you're the point guard, just dish it to the open guy. Don't hang on to it too long, try not to get hit. That's pretty much the name of the game."
He certainly seems to feel at home.
"I just enjoy the daily routine. I enjoy coach Kelly, how excited he is about offensive football, how he's constantly searching for a competitive edge, how he wants ideas from the players, from coaches," Sanchez said. "He never feels it has to be 'his' idea, although it's his offense, he wants input."
Does Sanchez feel the eyes of the team on him this week?
"They're always on the quarterback. You wear this red [practice] jersey here, you gotta be on time, you gotta be in the right place, and you should set an example, whether you're doing that verbally or through your demeanor."
Asked for an example of how he feels he has matured, Sanchez didn't hesitiate.
"Some of the impulse reaction things . . . Right before halftime [Sunday], J.J. Watt came through and I tried to escape him. I'd been in that situation a bunch, where the ball's flailing around, and it gets knocked out of your hand [when] you try to throw it at that last second.
"I literally just dropped to the ground. I mean, that hurts. As a competitor, that hurts. It [stinks], it's not fun. But I knew we had a [45-yard Cody Parkey] field goal in the bag. And I knew Parkey's been money. So let's not squander an opportunity to get points, go into halftime up 17-14 and see where this game takes us.
"I think in the past I might have tried to make a play, tried to do too much, tried to push a little too hard. That's where you turn over the ball on the fastbreak . . . I'd like to think I've grown, and I know I have, just watching film. Things come faster, and it's easier. You hear a lot of people say the game slows down; I think you just tend to speed up, you tend to relax a little bit. I really enjoy playing in this system."
Wide receiver Jeremy Maclin agreed that the offense will run much the same way this week. He said Foles and Sanchez are slightly different as passers.
"Nick probably has a stronger arm - that's nothing to take away from Mark, but what Mark does well is, everything's on time," said Maclin, who leads the Eagles with 45 catches for 790 yards and eight touchdowns at the season's midway point. "Nick can kind of get away with not throwing the ball exactly when it needs to be [thrown] because his arm's a little bit stronger."
Rookie wideout Jordan Matthews worked a lot with Sanchez in training camp when both were on the second team.
"I think we're the only team in the NFL that has two franchise quarterbacks," Matthews said.
What does Matthews like about Sanchez, who hit him in the back of the end zone Sunday for an 11-yard touchdown?
"Poise," he said. "He makes playing the game fun. Nick was able to keep everybody loose, everybody calm because he was so consistent, such a calm voice in the huddle. Mark's that same way, but Mark also brings a little bit of a playful attitude, too - he's going to joke around, make you laugh . . . that really helps us. Especially as a rookie, you don't have an uptight quarterback. He's a guy that's going to let me play loose, get me involved in the offense."
Smith, the ex-Jet, said Sanchez's best quality is "probably just being a leader. He can make all the throws, he can make good decisions, but talking to guys, before the play, after the play - what are you seeing? Communicating. He's really good at that."
Left guard Evan Mathis said that since Foles and Sanchez don't embody dramatically different styles, nothing will really change for the offensive line. Remember, left tackle Jason Peters said after Sunday's game that he didn't know Foles had left the field, until he went over to congratulate the QB on his 52-yard completion to Maclin and realized he was looking at Sanchez.
"Even if guys don't even know who the quarterback is, they still do pretty well," Mathis joked. "That's been proven."