Mark Sanchez
ESNY Graphic, AP Photo

Folks often chuckle at the sound of Mark Sanchez’s name, but only a fool would believe his New York Jets legacy consists of only the butt fumble. 

Tretirement of a player in any sport naturally calls on the question of overall legacy. All aren’t great and certain games/moments impact the perception of one’s career as a whole.

So is the case with Mark Sanchez.

After 12 seasons, the former New York Jets quarterback is hanging up the cleats and breaking into television at ESPN. Fair or not, one particular moment has defined Sanchez’s career as a pro (in the eyes of the casual NFL fan). However, his legacy, at least as a Jet, is one that should be looked at with fondness and great appreciation.

When Sanchez was selected fifth overall back in 2009, the buzz around him was palpable. With the Giants and Eli Manning having defeated the Patriots the previous year, the hunger for a franchise quarterback was at an all-time high. The experiment with Brett Favre failed and Chad Pennington just couldn’t stay healthy for New York to continue to build their franchise around him. It was the start of a new chapter for the Jets—new head coach and a new quarterback.

Immediately, the nickname of “The Sanchize” was bestowed upon the rookie QB. Even though most people want the rookie quarterback to have immediate success, the reality is quite different. Witnessing natural progress unfold is just fine (in most cases). In the case for Sanchez, perhaps that success came too quick.

In no way did Sanchez light it up during his rookie year. He threw 12 touchdowns and 20 interceptions. Two-hundred and seventy-two was the most amount of yards he threw in a game and that came during Week 1. Although not overly exciting, Mark was more or less a game manager.

It’s comical to think, but before the “Butt Fumble,” Sanchez already had a viral moment. During the Jets blowout win against the Raiders, Sanchez could be seen eating a hotdog while on the bench. The Jets were already comfortably ahead at the time of hotdog consumption, but it didn’t matter. Sanchez received some heat for it and was even forced to issue an apology.

That 2009 Jets team was known for two things back then: ground-and-pound and defense. They had the best defense in the league as well as one of the best running games. After a tough seven-week stretch during the middle of the season, the team won their last five of six to sneak into the playoffs at 9-7. The playoffs wouldn’t have been possible without the Colts sitting their starters during the second half in Week 16. New York would go on to win and then defeat the Cincinnati Bengals the following week to secure a wild card spot. This is when the true legacy of Mark Sanchez begins.

Fate has a funny way of showing itself and so was the case for the Jets as they would face the Bengals in Cincinnati for the wild card game. After falling behind midway through the first, Sanchez, along with a punishing running game, reeled off 21-straight points. He completed 12 of 15 passes for 182 yards, which were highlighted by a 45-yard touchdown pass to TE Dustin Keller. New York won 24-14. It was the franchise’s first playoff win since 2004 and Sanchez became the first Jets rookie QB to win a playoff game.

The next week, the rookie magic seemed to continue as the Jets would head to San Diego to face Phillip Rivers’s San Diego Chargers. What was unfolding was a rookie head coach, rookie quarterback and rookie running back leading one of the more surprising playoffs runs in modern-day football. For the second straight week, Shonn Green dominated on the ground and Sanchez did just enough for the Jets to steal another road playoff game.

Easily the play that many Jets fans remember is Darelle Revis’s highlight reel interception that he caught off the leg of Chargers receiver Vincent Jackson. The win not only advanced the Jets to their first AFC championship since 1999, but also put Sanchez in rarified air. To this day, he is one of only two quarterbacks (Joe Flacco, being the other) to win two playoff games as a rookie.

Then came the AFC championship game back in Indianapolis. This time, Peyton Manning played the whole game, but I’m sure Jets fans wish he hadn’t. New York jumped out to an early 11-point lead and went into halftime up 17-13. However, it all went downhill after that and the Colts shutout the Jets in the second half en route to a 30-17 victory. The loss ended Gang Green’s magical season but Jets nation couldn’t have been more excited. They got to the AFC championship game with a rookie quarterback. You factor the loss to inexperience and just come back next season bigger and better.

Come back bigger and better they did. The 2010 Jets are still the best team the franchise has had in over a decade. They added key players such as Santonio Holmes and LaDainian Tomlinson. The defense was spectacular again especially with the emergence of “Revis Island.” With Sanchez at the helm, the team finished the season with an 11-5 record, and could easily have finished 13-3 if not for a few tough losses. The only real blemish on that season was a 45-3 thrashing up in Foxboro, after which, Rex Ryan symbolically buried the game ball.

The 2011 playoff run for the New York Jets should and will always have a special place in the hearts of Jets fans. For the second-straight year, the Jets would face the Colts in the playoffs, this time in the wild-card round. It was a highly contested game which saw the Colts go up 16-14 with less than one minute left in the game. After a 47-yard kickoff return by Antonio Cromartie, Sanchez showed veteran poise and resolve. He went 3-3 on passes including a huge 18-yard pass to Braylon Edwards with three seconds left to put the Jets in field goal range. Nick Folk banged the kick the uprights and the Jets once again stole a playoff game on the road, this time getting revenge on the Colts for the previous season.

It’s hard to think that anything could’ve topped that Colts win; yet, unbeknownst to everyone, that’s exactly what Sanchez and the Jets did the following week against the Patriots. The Jets seemed to have control throughout the whole game. Their defense was stifling and Sanchez was leading drive after drive down the field. He finished the game with three touchdowns, including one of the greatest catches in Jets history by Santonio Holmes. Holmes made a diving catch in the back corner of the endzone which was reviewed and confirmed as a touchdown.

That win against New England just meant more. Not only was it a win against a division rival, but the biggest division rival. The team that a month ago embarrassed you on that very field. It also gave Mark Sanchez his fourth-road playoff game in only his second season. To many Jets fans who weren’t alive for the team’s only championship, this was their Super Bowl—a game that’ll be remembered in the annals of Jets history.

It’s unfortunate to say, but that victory against the Patriots was the top of the roller coaster. After that, it was all downhill. The Jets would go on to lose in the AFC championship game to the Steelers after a valiant comeback effort. Sanchez’s fumble right before halftime and the Jets inability to score from the Steelers two-yard line still haunts Jets fandom to this day.

The next season, the Jets imploded late in the season losing their last three games including a crushing Christmas Eve loss to the Giants. They missed the playoffs. Ironically, Sanchez had the best season of his career that year, passing for almost 3,500 yards awhile slinging 26 touchdowns and only 18 interceptions.

The next year was the icing on the cake. The Jets seemingly lost their swagger and identity overnight. They went 6-10 including that fateful Thanksgiving Day game that has come to live in infamy—a day I remember vividly as I assume most Jets fans do. We’ve all seen Sanchez midway through that second-quarter run right into the backside of Brandon Moore, fumbling the ball resulting in a touchdown for the Patriots.

It instantly became one of the most popular bloopers plays in sports history. After 40-straight weeks of being on SportsCenter’s “Not Top 10,” it had to be retired. Sports Science did a whole segment on it. It has its own Wikipedia page. T-shirts were made. It’s become an almost symbolic figure of the Jets mediocrity over the years.

In an instant, everything Sanchez had accomplished in the years prior had disappeared. He wasn’t known as the guy that led the Jets to back-to-back AFC championships. The guy that defeated three Hall of Fame-caliber quarterbacks in Phillip Rivers, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning in the playoffs had suddenly disappeared. Oh yeah, he also beat those guys on the road. As a matter of fact, Sanchez has a better road playoff record than Brady. Sanchez is 4-2 on while Brady is 4-4. Then again, the Pats are rarely ever on the road come playoff time.

As easy as it is to trash Mark Sanchez for how his tenure in New York ended, it’s impossible to deny that he was one of the catalysts behind one of the more successful periods in Jets history. They had never gone to back to back conference championships in their history. The two-straight wins were the first time the Jets had won back to back playoff games since 1982. It’s also very telling how the Geno Smith and now Sam Darnold have not been held to the standard of making the playoffs so early in their careers. Yes, the circumstances were different, but still. In fact, how many quarterbacks in recent memory have won four road games in their first two seasons?

The life of a Jets fan isn’t a glamorous one, but the magical run Sanchez and the Jets experienced from 2009-2011 will live on forever. And that’s what his legacy among Jets fan should be. Love him or hate him, when you look back on the career of No. 6, you have to look at it for the joy he brought the fanbase.

When the name Mark Sanchez is uttered, the first thought shouldn’t be “butt fumble.” Instead, it should be the timeless playoff moments and feelings of joy he helped bring New York Jets faithful.

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