FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Mark Sanchez was all business, no smiles and no sense of relief.
The New York Jets quarterback was a few days removed from one of the best games of his NFL career, and the celebration was already long over.
"It was great on Sunday and Monday," Sanchez said, "but we're well beyond that."
Maybe so, but Sanchez was written off by many fans and media months ago, believed to be a lame-duck quarterback whose days under center for the Jets were numbered with Tim Tebow in town. Well, Sanchez sent a message to his critics with a terrific performance against the Buffalo Bills that left no doubt: He's the undisputed leader of this team.
Other than an early interception on a tipped toss, Sanchez was nearly flawless in a 48-28 rout of the Bills. His numbers weren't gaudy or the stuff that fantasy football players dream about — 19 of 27 for 266 yards and three touchdowns — but Sanchez was in total control throughout.
"It was a good start," Sanchez said. "I admitted that after the game, no question. That's exactly what we wanted, a win, and how we got it was nice, but there's a long way to go, man. A long way."
For Sanchez, that means at least a trip to the playoffs after failing to get there for the first time in his three seasons a year ago. He took the brunt of the criticism, with many questioning whether he would ever truly become the franchise-type quarterback that coach Rex Ryan declared him to be the day the Jets traded up and drafted Sanchez in 2009.
Sanchez also took shots from fans, media and even anonymous teammates, who knocked his lack of leadership and failure to be the guy that everyone looked to to steady the ship.
Then came New York's brief flirtation with Peyton Manning, and the stunning trade for Tebow — even after giving Sanchez a contract extension and a vote of confidence. There were doom-and-gloom forecasts for the two quarterbacks, with many saying there was no way they could co-exist and that Tebow would certainly take Sanchez's job at some point this season.
Sure, it's just one game, but Sanchez put all of that to rest for at least a week.
"There are probably a couple throws he wished he had back, but overall I thought he did a tremendous job," Ryan said. "You just saw that confidence and I saw it in the pregame. I'm not so sure I ever saw that before. I've seen him have some great pregames, but he was bouncing around and he was zipping it, so I sensed that he was really feeling it. He certainly played that way."
Sanchez had plenty of doubters heading into the game, and a preseason in which he failed to lead the Jets into the end zone in three games didn't help things.
But Sanchez was moving the offense along so efficiently in the second quarter that the crowd at MetLife actually booed Tebow — yes, really — when he came in and failed to gain anything on a run that many thought might have disrupted the starting quarterback's rhythm.
It was a moment of clarity for Jets fans and perhaps vindication for Sanchez, even if he refused to define it as such.
"Regardless of what the opinions are outside of our building, they don't affect us," Sanchez said. "That's the most important thing moving forward, is worrying about each other, caring about each other, keep practicing harder and remember this feeling. I told the guys in the locker room, 'Remember this because it took a lot of work to get here, so just don't throw it out the window. It doesn't just happen on Sunday. It takes six days to get here and a great day of execution to have this feeling.'
"So, no vindication at all."
This is the maturation of Sanchez, who isn't likely to sulk on the sideline anymore after making a bad play or complain if he's taken out of the game for Tebow to run some wildcat-style packages. He has been nothing but complimentary of Tebow, calling him a "great friend." He spoke throughout the summer about making sure his receivers have a sense of urgency on every play and that it was his huddle and his responsibility to get the offense moving.
Whether Tebow's enormous presence has helped that mindset along or not, Sanchez appears to be a different guy on the field and in the locker room. And, that's exactly what the Jets had hoped for.
"I think he's going to have a really good year," general manager Mike Tannenbaum said before the season. "What's exciting for us is that he's going into his fourth year, and when you draft a guy, it's like, 'Talent sets the floor and character sets the ceiling,' and now we're into our fourth year and it's like, it's really coming true.
"Every day he goes out there, this is his team and it's been tremendous. He has the respect of everybody in the locker room. Everything we've asked him to do: his arm strength, his accuracy, his decision-making, his ball security, have all significantly improved. I'm really proud of him."
Tight end Konrad Reuland was happy to see Sanchez have such a terrific start, especially after hearing about everything he has dealt with. The two have known each other since they were in grade school, playing on traveling teams in Southern California, and then becoming teammates at Mission Viejo High School.
"There were always little pranks being pulled at the hotel and stuff like that, when we'd be on a trip somewhere," Reuland said with a laugh. "There's been so many of them. At home, we'd always be messing around outside and end up breaking something and our parents would have to pay for it, and we'd be grounded. We were always doing something fun."
And, now the two are together in the NFL, hoping to get to the playoffs — with Sanchez leading the way.
"To me, he's just the same Mark that he's always been," said Reuland, who played with the San Francisco 49ers last season. "I'm going to say that he's a goofball, but not at all times. He knows when he needs to be serious. I think through this whole process, he's been true to his roots, which is cool to see. He hasn't let the positives or any of the other stuff get to his head."
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