As Philadelphia Eagles backup quarterback Mark Sanchez chatted during his postgame presser, practically beaming after his unexpected stewardship underscored the Eagles' 31-21 win over the Houston Texans on Sunday at NRG Stadium, the scene inspired a moment of juxtaposition.
Hours earlier, Sanchez took the field in a regular season game for the first time since Dec. 30, 2012 and, almost immediately, twitter ridicule ensued. Sanchez was after all the centerpiece of the butt fumble, an unwitting participant in one of the more embarrassing episodes in recent NFL history.
That incident represented the nadir for Sanchez in New York, the basement in his fall from the penthouse. He was once dubbed "Sanchize" and anointed the heir to Joe Namath. Sanchez not only dated models he dabbled in their profession and, of relative significance, he was the signal caller for Jets outfits that reached the AFC Championship Game in consecutive postseasons.
For all his bluster and boasting, Rex Ryan never proved capable of providing Sanchez the environment necessary to develop his nascent skills.
But hard times soon followed and before Sanchez knew it, he was sliding face-first into the rear of Brandon Moore and absorbing blame for all the Jets' woes. His was a tale of stardom and suffering.
That back story was difficult to disregard while Sanchez proudly yet modestly celebrated his return to the limelight. Starter Nick Foles had been sidelined by a Whitney Mercilus sack on the final play of the first quarter, leaving Sanchez to lead the Eagles as Foles had his left clavicle X-rayed. Sanchez's first attempt resulted in a 52-yard completion to Jeremy Maclin.
From that accurate post pass through the final snap Sanchez was steady. He engineered four scoring drives, including one 15-play, 80-yard march in the fourth quarter that sealed the victory. Extracting all the narrative that greased the skids to his departure in New York, Sanchez remains a first-round draft pick. Against the Texans, he flashed both his talent and moxie.
"With Sanchez I wasn't really surprised. He's a Top 10 pick for a reason," Eagles running back LeSean McCoy says. "He played well with the Jets. I think here we have enough weapons that he can play well and he's not asked to do as much. Just managed the game and make the throws.
"He's good. Even when he came here it's hard to look at him as a backup because of the success he's had and the experience. Today wasn't something really surprising to the team. He just played well, which is something he does in practice, in preseason games. Every chance he gets he's always productive, and I think we'll do some damage if Nick can't go. Mark will step in there and do a great job like today."
Accepting that possibility doesn't require any suspension of disbelief. Sanchez didn't set the league on fire during his first two seasons with the Jets, but he was integral to postseason road victories over the Cincinnati Bengals as a rookie and the New England Patriots in 2010. Even in the Jets' 24-19 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2010 AFC Championship Game Sanchez performed admirably, passing for 233 yards and two touchdowns.
Rex Ryan's Sanchize Curse
That things fell apart so precipitously for Sanchez in New York is a reflection on the franchise, currently the laughingstock of the AFC East. Not only did the Jets err in foisting the painstakingly inept Geno Smith as competition for Sanchez prior to last season, they compounded that mistake by bringing in a habitual loafer in Michael Vick to work with Smith. On Sunday the Jets suffered their eighth consecutive loss and continued to exhibit signs of a team in utter disarray with a lame-duck head coach and a culture willing to let Sanchez take the fall for a shallow, flimsy roster.
For all his bluster and boasting, Rex Ryan never proved capable of providing Sanchez the environment necessary to develop his nascent skills. That opportunity appears to be at hand for Sanchez under the tutelage of Eagles coach Chip Kelly, whose offensive innovation and meticulous preparation seem to serve Sanchez well. Sanchez played splendidly during the preseason and flashed the potential of his pairing with Kelly.
"Of course you're a little nervous, you want to get the first throw out of the way. Thanks to Chip we throw it right down the field so that'll get your nerves gone."
His growth was on display against the Texans. Sanchez passed for 202 yards and two touchdowns. He tossed a pair of interceptions and was sacked twice, but given the layoff and the pressure applied by the J.J. Watt-led defensive front, an unblemished showcase was an unrealistic expectation.
"We have total confidence in Mark," Kelly says. "He's a proven professional. He's played a ton of games in this league. He's been to playoff games. He's been in clutch situations before. He's been the ultimate teammate behind Nick.
"I don't know if there's been a better No. 2 in terms of how he's handled the whole situation. And when he got in there, I was excited. I thought he showed it."
If Sunday marked a rebirth for Sanchez, the locale of the rekindling of his career was appropriate. Sanchez made his first start as a rookie against the Texans at then-Reliant Stadium on Sept. 13, 2009 and guided the Jets to a 24-7 victory. It was the beginning of a promising career derailed by the deafening noise that has sidetracked many in New York, the genesis of a story that ended prematurely when Sanchez suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the 2013 preseason. But if Foles is sidelined for a significant length of time, Sanchez can author the next chapter of his career.
Perhaps Sanchez enjoyed the first of countless redemptive moments ahead. If so, that would explain his smile and a countenance reflecting relief.
"I felt like I was ready, I was prepared," Sanchez says. "Of course you're a little nervous, you want to get the first throw out of the way. Thanks to Chip we throw it right down the field so that'll get your nerves gone. I played in this stadium before. This was my first start here so that brought back a lot of good memories, and I just tried to get some positive plays and help the team.
"I felt good (running the up-tempo offense). I enjoy it. Y'all saw it early in the preseason, I felt good. When we can push the pace like that, that's my favorite. So we'll see how it goes."