So how should Jets fans feel on the morning after being 32 minutes away from Super Bowl nirvana?
The last 28 minutes admittedly went very badly. The Jets defense was the NFL equivalent of posterized by Peyton Manning, who turned the AFC Championship Game into a personal highlight reel.
Given this sad outcome, there are two ways to view the Jets future. The first, one more comfortable for Jets fans given their history, is that this January will be a lost opportunity unlikely to present itself for another 10 or 20 years. Alternatively and more optimistically, this may be the first taste of a forthcoming decade or so of excellence spurred by a mega-watt head coach and a franchise QB in the making.
The argument for the pessimists is that it's very hard to get to the Super Bowl even with a great QB. The primary evidence for this is Dan Marino, who advanced in his second year at age 23 but then never got back to the big game. In fact, Marino won more than 10 games just three more times in his career. And of course, there's still the much greater chance that Sanchez does not develop into a Hall of Fame-caliber QB.
Marino is more exception than rule when it comes to elite, franchise-level QBs not getting even the hat and T-shirt, never mind the ring. But he is not alone. Dan Fouts never even got to a Super Bowl. Neither did Warren Moon. Sonny Jurgensen is another great QB who never had a real championship opportunity (Billy Kilmer started for the 1972 Redskins). So the argument that even if Sanchez pops, there are no guarantees is technically true. However, this scenario assumes tremendous deficiencies elsewhere -- namely on the defensive side of the ball.
Of course, a multitude of things can go wrong with Sanchez. He can get hurt and turn into a non-special player like Chad Pennington or Carson Palmer. Or he can be a flash in the pan. In fact, some argue that he's not even that given his 63 QB rating as a rookie (20 picks vs. just 12 TD passes).
But, while we always respect the stats in this space, we cannot ignore evidence of other qualities that early career stats can mask. Sanchez is viewed as a smart, hard-working kid with great leadership ability/charisma. He has shown a plus NFL arm and great feet, overall athleticism and toughness (look again at that vicious hit he took on his second TD strike yesterday to Dustin Keller). For those more evidence based, how about that 92.7 QB rating in three road playoff games (which would have been over 100 if Braylon Edwards had caught that easy TD in Cincy)? I view this as far more predictive of future success than his regular-season QB rating.
Skeptics can argue Sanchez wasn't asked to do much this January, but it's 68 passes we're looking at. Breaking down the film, there weren't more than two or three bad throws in that rather large sample.
Of course, there will soon be bumps in the road. But I'd be more surprised right now if Sanchez didn't play in multiple Pro Bowls than I would be if he did.
We saw yesterday how a great QB can neutralize the toughest of NFL defenses. The Jets had a couple of blown assignments and struggled with some key injuries, especially in the secondary, but Manning just beat them by making a bevy of incredibly tight throws. The Jets lost to arguably the greatest QB ever unquestionably playing at the top of his game.
My bottom line: who's NFL future would you trade the Jets for right now? Drew Brees is already 31. Eli Manning is 29. Sanchez is 23 and good enough to win with right now. Yes, the Saints and Giants are in the conversation. The Steelers, too, obviously, with Ben Roethlisberger not turning 28 until March. Maybe you can scrounge up five teams. But at what other point in Jets history would they even be in the "best future" conversation?
And it's not like the future is so far off into the distance that you can barely make it out. To a large extent, the future is now. Mark Sanchez has a 40/60 chance of being a top 10 QB next year and it's 60/40 he'll at least be average.
New York, with New England reloading on defense at least and with lots of question marks even on offense at the skill positions (sans QB), is the 2010 AFC East favorite. So yesterday is reasonably certain to not represent an end to a Super Bowl quest, but rather a beginning.