Jeff Garcia answered his phone one day late in the winter of 2013, and on the line was a man he didn't know at all, seeking advice and insight about a man Garcia knew as well as anyone.
Mark Sanchez had just completed a season with the New York Jets that had left his confidence, and maybe his career as a starting NFL quarterback, in broken pieces. The Jets had gone 6-10. Sanchez had thrown 18 interceptions and lost eight fumbles. He'd been benched twice. He'd butt-fumbled. Now the Jets had hired a new offensive coordinator, their third in three years - Marty Mornhinweg - and Sanchez wanted to probe the mind of one of Mornhinweg's best pupils to learn the West Coast offense.
So he called Garcia, whom Mornhinweg had coached for three years with the San Francisco 49ers and the Eagles, and made the simplest request: Teach me. Teach me Mornhinweg's system, his coaching style, his mannerisms and idiosyncrasies. Garcia did. Four to five hours a day, three to four days a week, for a full month, the two quarterbacks talked route trees and timing and footwork in a film room and gymnasium near Garcia's San Diego home. And only now with the Eagles, after Sanchez missed the entire 2013 season with a shoulder injury, has he been able to show his tutor what he has learned.
"If there's one thing I would never doubt about Mark, it's the mental side," Garcia said in a telephone interview Thursday. "That's one of the things he's done in Philadelphia. He's prepared mentally. He now is able to translate what he's being coached up to do and allow himself to operate at a high level on the field, and hopefully he can maintain that consistency and grow."
Yes, Sanchez has been excellent since Nick Foles suffered that fractured clavicle two weeks ago, throwing for 534 yards and four touchdowns in seven quarters of action. Chip Kelly's offense might run at 45 rpm in the NFL's 33-rpm world, but the concepts and strategies aren't unlike those of the West Coast system. Look at the accents on the tight ends and running backs in the passing game, the way Sanchez and Jordan Matthews used those crossing routes to carve up the Carolina Panthers on Monday night, the quick throws to the middle of the field that play to Sanchez's strengths.
But even if Sanchez and the Eagles beat the Packers on Sunday in Green Bay, he will have a long way yet to go to match what Garcia did in 2006 - the standard by which all the team's backup quarterbacks are measured. After Donovan McNabb's season ended in Week 11 with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, Garcia lost his first start before reeling off six straight victories and leading the Eagles to the brink of what would have been an unlikely appearance in the NFC championship game.
His and Sanchez's stories and circumstances are so similar, it's downright spooky - the heights they had reached and the pressures they had faced, the paths they had taken to become starters again. In 1999, Garcia followed Joe Montana and Steve Young as the 49ers' No. 1 quarterback, fighting what he called "the ghosts and the greatness" of the franchise's past as the team began a rebuilding period. The 49ers won just 10 games over Garcia's first two seasons as a starter, and although they became a playoff team in 2001 and 2002, he had to live with people reminding him that he wasn't a champion, wasn't a Super Bowl MVP, as his two predecessors had been.
He endured nightmarish seasons in Cleveland and Detroit before deciding to sign with the Eagles just to be part of a winning organization again, even as a backup. Sanchez had the identical reason for joining Kelly and the Eagles in March, and long before he did, he could sit in Garcia's living room and open up about his rise and fall with the Jets: the four road playoff victories, the two AFC championship games, the searing spotlight when things go bad and stay bad.
"As much as we may seem superhuman in the sense of being able to play a professional sport, we are human," said Garcia, the quarterbacks coach for the Canadian Football League's Montreal Alouettes. "We are affected by what people say and think, and as much as you have to be thick-skinned and avoid a lot of that negativity, it's difficult to do. You can't help but feel at times, especially when things aren't going well, that you want to avoid everybody. You want to shelter yourself. You want to hide indoors.
"That's rough. It shouldn't be like that. But we put that pressure on ourselves, too, as players, because we expect to be the best. And when things aren't going in the right direction, especially at the quarterback position, it starts to come back to us and fall upon us. We can't help but share that burden, and that's our responsibility."
Aside from a congratulatory text message that Garcia sent Sanchez after the Eagles' win in Houston, the two haven't spoken since Sanchez replaced Foles. That's OK with both of them.
"He's just an awesome guy," Sanchez said Thursday, "and how thoughtful of him to keep an eye on me and wish me the best and text me."
Their friendship doesn't demand constant communication, and Garcia said he doesn't want to be "another guy hanging on just to be part of the journey." He was on that journey himself once, and Jeff Garcia understands: The longer he goes without hearing from Mark Sanchez, the better off the Eagles will be.