Mark Sanchez is preparing right now to lead his team into their biggest game since Superbowl III. Over 40 years of hope, anticipation and ultimately frustration will finally come to a head at Heinz Field this evening. The pressure on the young quarterback will be intense but this is a man who is used to the scrutiny. From the day he was drafted he has been painted as a saviour, and although Rex Ryan may take this personally (open mouth, insert foot), Mark Sanchez is the face of the Jets franchise. On such a nostalgic day there will be many people who painstakingly look for parallels with Joe Namath, who led his Jets team so memorably in 1969 to their most famous victory. However, rather than anointing Sanchez prematurely and looking at his career through the prism of Broadway Joe, it might be more accurate and worthwhile to use the comparison of a more regular Joe.

Though not as historically relevant yet as Joe Namath, Joe Flacco is a pretty good football player in his own right. He was drafted a year before Sanchez, and so is slightly ahead in terms of his development and his career. But the similarities between the two are startling. On the surface it seems relatively superficial; both were drafted in the first round for good teams on the cusp of being great. Both teams, the Ravens and the Jets, had fearsome defenses but no major weapons at wide receiver and no presence at the quarterback position. It was due to these parallel circumstances that Flacco and Sanchez were given the starting job going into their first seasons.

The main difference between the beginning of their careers is that Flacco’s arrival was not met with anywhere near the same level of hype and expectation as Sanchez’s. There are several reasons for this, the first being location. The Jets represent a city acknowledged as being one of the most exciting in the World, while the Ravens represent a city that is largely an unknown quantity outside of The Wire and Hairspray. The New York media is a whole different animal, and Sanchez has not exactly been shy in supplying them with ammunition. Who could forget that infamous GQ spread which he took part in, posing shirtless on a beach with model Hilary Rhoda. This decision was met with a great deal of mocking and derision, especially as he had not yet even taken a snap in the NFL. But if there is one thing that Mark has no problems with, it’s confidence. I mean you certainly would have to be confident to put yourself out like that, especially when you know the next day you’ll be walking into a locker-room and facing up to all those hardened veterans.

But while he had the confidence, Flacco had something Sanchez did not in his rookie season: a buffer. Joe Flacco was 17th overall in the draft, but ahead of him was Matt Ryan who was selected 3rd. Ryan would similarly be starting all year and he would put up sensational numbers for a turnaround team that was one of the major stories in 2008. So as well as being in a quieter Baltimore media market, Flacco could also play each Sunday safe in the knowledge that another rookie quarterback would have to deal with the headlines.

Given these differing spotlights, it is not surprising that we have developed a slightly warped perception of the respective rookie seasons these guys had. With Mark Sanchez we focus on all of the interceptions thrown, passes misjudged and (on one fateful day in Oakland) all the hot dogs eaten. Sanchez finished the season with 20 interceptions versus 12 touchdown passes, and glimpses of his ability were few and far between. The jury was out on his future prospects, with analysts focusing on his turnovers and poor decision-making. It was contended that the Jets scraped into the playoffs in spite of their quarterback, not because of him. The worst stretch of the season for Sanchez came in weeks 5 and 6 where he threw a total of 5 picks in 2 losses. The combined margin of defeat in these games was only 7 points.

Flacco’s rookie year, conversely, is always portrayed as a success. We attribute glowing adjectives to it such as efficient, mature and composed; words that are antonyms for Sanchez’s season in 2009. However, people are quick to forget the early struggles that Flacco endured. 5 games into the season he had already amassed 7 interceptions and the Ravens record stood at a disappointing 2-3. His worst stretch during this period came in weeks 5 and 6 when he threw a total of 5 picks in 2 losses. Sound familiar?

The fact that rookie quarterbacks commit a lot of turnovers is not exactly a startling revelation. What is more is that they are often no indicator of future ability. They could well be an alarming trend that persists throughout a career (Mr Cutler), but equally they could just be part of a difficult learning process that eventually makes a player stronger. The paradigm example of the latter has to be Peyton Manning, who threw for a record 28 interceptions in his rookie season in 1998. It did not exactly hurt him, or the Colts, in the long-term.

Learning the importance of efficient (if unspectacular) quarterback play is a lesson that both Flacco and Sanchez had to deal with in their first year. Both were essentially told by their coaches and members of their defense that their only job was not to turn over the football to the other team; let the defense do the rest. After his initial struggles, Flacco became a different player. A 2-3 start with 7 picks was followed by a 9-2 finish in which only 5 interceptions were thrown. His first two road playoff games also included no interceptions. The numbers were not big, but they did not need to be.

For Sanchez we see this maturity and progression a bit further down the line. The Jets needed to win their last 2 games of the season to make the playoffs, and so it was imperative for mistakes to be limited. In Week 16 at the Colts, Sanchez was 12/19 for 106 yards and no touchdowns. In Week 17 at home to the Bengals, he was 8/16 for 63 yards and no touchdowns. Impressive figures? Not even a little bit. But the stat I left out which is the most important is that in both games he did not throw a single interception; coincidentally, the Jets took 2 wins from these games and made the playoffs.

These may appear to be baby steps in the development of a quarterback, but they are more like Neil Armstrong leaps. When a young quarterback demonstrates this level of responsibility everything becomes a little easier. The trust from his coaches and fellow players increases, and this is invaluable going forward. The playbook also begins to open up. Games will begin with simple screen passes and hitch routes to get the quarterback in a rhythm, but then as the game unfolds we see more plays downfield and more risks taken. Joe Flacco’s numbers have been increasing each year, including his passing yards, touchdowns and quarterback rating. His yards per attempt have gone up from 6.9 in 2008, to 7.2 in 2009, to 7.4 in 2010. Sanchez in his second season has also shown improvements in his completion percentage, passing yards, touchdowns and quarterback rating. Crucially, his interceptions have also decreased.

It has always been acknowledged that Flacco has a big arm and can display game-winning performances, but Sanchez does not get the same benefit of the doubt. While it is conceded that the consistency is not there yet, the signs definitely are. Sanchez was electric in Week 2 against the Patriots this season and completely outplayed one of the all-time greats in Tom Brady. He was 21/30 with 220 yards, 3 touchdowns and no interceptions. And you simply cannot forget the way in which Sanchez led the Jets to a fourth quarter come from behind victory in November against the Texans. He took his team 72 yards down the field for the winning touchdown, and he only burned 45 seconds in the process. As well as a perfect 6-yard pass to Santonio Holmes in the end zone, Sanchez threw an outstanding 42-yard pass the play before to Braylon Edwards. Make no mistake, this boy can throw the football and he can make the big plays when they are needed.

The most impressive parallel between Sanchez and Flacco remains their record in the playoffs. Sanchez was incredible against the Bengals in his postseason debut where he went 12/15 for 182 yards, threw 1 touchdown and no interceptions, and had a passer rating of 139.4. He became the fourth rookie quarterback in the history of the league to win his first playoff game, and only the second one to achieve this feat on the road. Care to hazard a wild guess at who the first quarterback might be? That’s right, Joe Flacco, just one year earlier. Sanchez, like Flacco, wasted no time at all in winning his second road playoff game by defeating a much-favoured opponent; for Sanchez it was the 13-3 Chargers, for Flacco the 13-3 Titans.

There is no denying that Sanchez is a gamer when it comes to the big stage. He has continued this distinguished run in his second season by taking down Peyton Manning and the Colts in Indianapolis, before once again outplaying Tom Brady in Foxborough. In only two years, Sanchez has racked up 4 road playoff wins which ties an NFL record. To put this achievement into context, only 4 other players have managed to do this in the history of the league. These players are Len Dawson, Roger Staubach and Jake Delhomme. And Joe Flacco. For more context, Aaron Rodgers only managed to get his first playoff win this season. He has had 6 years in the NFL, 3 of them as a starter. It took Peyton Manning 6 years to win his first playoff game, and it was 9 years before he achieved a postseason victory on the road. Matt Ryan, seen as the poster child for this new golden generation of quarterbacks, is still waiting for his first playoff win despite being in the league for 3 seasons. He has already had two opportunities to open his account, including one where he was favoured at home, but to no avail.

Yet somehow Matt Ryan is known as ‘Matty Ice’. Such a nickname can be made in the regular season but it is earned in the postseason. Mark Sanchez has been nothing but money in the playoffs. And this is why although the playoffs give us the greatest parallel between Flacco and Sanchez, they also provide us with the greatest distinction. While Flacco does win in the postseason, his level of play does not actually increase while doing so. In fact, his passer rating drops. But for Sanchez it is precisely the opposite. In his 5 playoff games so far, Sanchez has thrown 7 touchdowns to only 3 interceptions. His completion percentage stands at 60.5% and his average pass attempt is 7.4 yards. Overall, his passer rating is 22 points higher than it is in the regular season. Furthermore, we should not forget that his career postseason passer rating of 92.2 has been accrued without enjoying the comforts of a single game at home.

All in all, the future looks pretty bright for the young man nicknamed the ‘Sanchize’. What he has managed to accomplish in his short career thus far is nothing short of remarkable. He is nowhere near being the finished article yet, but why would you expect him to be when he has only 2 seasons under his belt? No one seems to doubt that Flacco is progressing nicely and yet if we sync the development of his career with Sanchez’s, they are clearly analogous. Flacco’s numbers may be slightly better on paper, but Sanchez has demonstrated his big-game mentality to an extent that even Flacco cannot compete with. Tonight, Sanchez heads to Pittsburgh, the same place where Flacco and the Ravens have been knocked out of the playoffs 2 of the last 3 seasons. If Sanchez succeeds where Flacco failed, he will have claimed the scalps of Manning, Brady and Roethlisberger in consecutive weeks on the road; 3 future hall of famers with 6 rings between them. If he falls at the same hurdle then there is always next year. And the year after that. And, as he is only 24, probably a good 10 years after that too. Sanchez is not Diamond Joe yet. He is more of a diamond in the rough. But if we give him some breathing space then maybe one day he will adopt a similar position in Jets folklore. For now, comparing and contrasting his career with Joe Flacco creates expectations that are much more realistic and easier to bear. Not just for Sanchez himself, but for all of us.

By Ognjen Miletic