PHILADELPHIA -- A smile creeps across Mark Sanchez's face. He is more humble now, more appreciative of every opportunity to play football. Every practice. Every drill. It all matters to him so much more now.
So when told that his new offensive coordinator with the Philadelphia Eagles, Pat Shurmur, said he can see why Sanchez played in two AFC Championship Games during his first two seasons with the New York Jets, Sanchez could not hide his pleasure.
"That feels good," Sanchez said, smiling.
Compliments have been difficult to come by for the 27-year-old Sanchez, who flamed out of New York after a blazing start as the fifth overall pick in the 2009 draft. After four road playoff wins in his first two seasons, there was the Butt Fumble, the benching and the boos. There was the Tim Tebow experiment, and the arrival of Geno Smith, the Jets' second-round draft pick last year, and a quarterback competition in training camp that Sanchez had all but wrapped up in August until the final indignity.
In the fourth quarter of the Jets' third preseason game against the Giants, coach Rex Ryan tapped Sanchez to replace the turnover-prone Smith under center. Sanchez wasn't expecting to play and was eating sunflower seeds on the sideline, and the Jets' second-string offensive line proved incapable of protecting him. When defensive tackle Marvin Austin drilled Sanchez in the shoulder, Sanchez's season and his Jets career were all but over.
If he is or ever was bitter about Ryan's indefensible decision to put him at risk in a meaningless game, Sanchez does not reveal it. He has moved on. Sanchez called sitting out last season with a torn labrum that was surgically repaired in October "an empty feeling, career-wise," but it wasn't without upside.
"It made me appreciate playing even more," he said, "and it showed me how fragile things are and how quickly things can change, so not only for the worse but for the better."
Sitting out did give Sanchez a chance to spend time with his family. He spent last season rehabilitating his throwing shoulder at the Jets' training facility in New Jersey; in Alabama near Dr. James Andrews, who performed his surgery; and in his native California. Back in Orange County, Sanchez got to see his 7-year-old nephew, Nico, play baseball and basketball, and that helped ease the pain of not playing.
Sanchez attended some Jets games, sitting in a luxury box at MetLife Stadium. He watched other games on television, which he said was "really weird."
But it was fairly obvious the Jets had moved on to their next franchise quarterback in Smith. Sanchez knew. His cap figure for 2014 was scheduled to be $13.1 million, and he was due to receive a $2 million roster bonus on March 25.
What had to be frustrating for Sanchez was that the Jets took their time to release him, even though everyone knew it was coming. New York wanted to bring in a viable backup quarterback before surrendering Sanchez, and it took more than a week into free agency for the Jets to sign Michael Vick. In the interim, the need for starting quarterbacks around the league all but evaporated.
After signing Vick on March 21, the Jets released Sanchez the same day. A week later, he signed with the Eagles because he believed Philadelphia was "the best opportunity for my career in the long run."