After throwing his career-high fourth touchdown pass on Sunday, a 16-yard strike to Santonio Holmes with 61 seconds to play that lifted the Jets to a 28--24 home victory over the Bills, Mark Sanchez shrugged when asked about the team rallying to win a critical game. "We've been in that situation before," he said.
If big-game victories have become a matter of course for the Jets, who improved to 6--5 to stay in the playoff hunt, so too have questions about whether Sanchez, in his third NFL season, can become an elite QB. He helped New York reach the AFC Championship Game in each of his first two years, winning four games on the road (tied for the most postseason road victories ever among quarterbacks) and throwing three times as many touchdowns (nine) as interceptions (three) in six career postseason games. However, because his regular-season stats scream average—47 TD passes, 44 picks, 55.0% completion rate—Sanchez has come under fire from the media and, indirectly, from coach Rex Ryan, who last week gave backup Mark Brunell practice snaps with the first team.
Sanchez's situation illuminates how the barometer for quarterback play is changing in the age of pass-oriented offenses. Once, QBs were judged on wins and losses. Now victories carry less weight if they're not accompanied by big stats. "Everybody wants to talk about QB rating," says Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. "Well, let's say you're in a dink-and-dunk offense and you go 20 of 26 for 180 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions and you win by 10 points. That's not good enough for some people. It's a shame that the rating doesn't have a certain percentage for wins. Why is it that quarterbacks that are winning games but not putting up big numbers are being looked at as the weak link?"
Other young quarterbacks are facing scrutiny for failing to make the leap from solid to sensational by their third or fourth season. Joe Flacco helped the Ravens reach the AFC title game as a rookie in 2008 and won a playoff game in each of the next two years, but through Sunday he had career lows in completion percentage and quarterback rating. Matt Ryan led the Falcons to the playoffs as a rookie in '08 and to a 13--3 record in his third season, but he's 0--2 in the postseason and failed to reach 200 yards passing or throw for more scores than picks in either game.
Many coaches and executives feel quarterbacks are better prepared to start when they reach the NFL because more colleges are running pro-style offenses or spread attacks. But that could also mean QBs come into the league with less room to improve than they had a decade ago, even though fans and some owners expect quantum leaps after a couple of years. "I don't believe it's realistic," says Falcons G.M. Thomas Dimitroff. "Few quarterbacks have the upside to be like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning or even a Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers. That doesn't mean you have no chance if you don't have one of those guys. There are some very valid levels below that elite level that can allow organizations to be successful and make runs at Super Bowls. Everyone needs to understand that."