Maria Burns Ortiz: New York Jets' Mark Sanchez at Crossroads of Career

Earlier this season, Jets coach Rex Ryan called quarterback Mark Sanchez one of the NFL’s elite. 

Ryan’s justification? Because Sanchez “wins the big games and he's a winner.”

Unfortunately for Jets fans, that intangible ability hasn’t been on display much this season. The team is 5-5. And Sanchez, who was pegged by many “experts” and fans as a can’t-miss quarterback, is proving to be more hit-and-miss.

Sanchez’s performance against the Broncos on Nov. 17 certainly didn’t help to quiet his critics. The third-year signal-caller struggled in a nationally televised Thursday night game, and his only pass that found the end zone was an interception. 

During the same game, Denver quarterback Tim Tebow came up big, all but assuring his deification in the Mile High City.

In the Jets’ first two seasons with Sanchez behind center, New York made back-to-back appearances in the AFC championship game. While not yet eliminated from making the streak three in a row, getting to the postseason is going to be an effort for the Jets, and Sanchez is going to have to play better to give New York a chance.

Sanchez carries a number of qualities that help make elite quarterbacks marketing machines – including charismatic commercial appeal and playing in a major media market – but he always has come up a bit short on the important end: his actual numbers.

He’s yet to complete at least 60 percent of his passes in a season. This season, he's only connecting on 57.1 percent of his throws. Unless Sanchez shows a marked improvement on that front this season, detractors will continue to cite the number as evidence he is not an elite quarterback.

For comparison, Tom Brady, Sanchez’s counterpart for the AFC East rival New England Patriots, is on track to finish with a completion rate of over 60 percent for the 11th consecutive season (despite whispers that Brady is playing at less than 100 percent). Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, who has been sidelined all of this season with a neck injury, has completed 62 percent or more of his passes dating back to the 1999 season. 

Those are the kind of numbers that begin to set elite quarterbacks apart.

Sanchez’s quarterback rating is 79.9 this season, 72.9 for his career. Brady’s rating this season is 102.5 and at 95.7 for his career. Manning’s career rating is 94.9. Even Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has a career quarterback rating of 92.6 (93.2 in 2011).

Roethlisberger himself has been the subject of the good versus great NFL quarterback debate. Like Sanchez, Roethlisberger has benefited from a strong defense. However, Roethlisberger, along with Brady and Manning, has something else Sanchez doesn’t – a Super Bowl ring. The eight-year Steelers quarterback has made three appearances in the NFL championship game, coming away with two rings.

Certainly, Sanchez has plenty of upside. He’s still young, has shown potential, and has the benefit of a top 10 defense. He’s capable of playing under a major media spotlight and coming up big in big games. He’s got the backing of his coach – despite Ryan giving backup Mark Brunell first-team reps this week in practice, to apparently light a fire under his quarterback.

Before Sanchez’s 2011 season is called a bust, he’s still got six more games to prove dissenters wrong. Sanchez will face the Bills this Sunday. In their last meeting on Nov. 6, Sanchez completed 20-of-28 passes in a 27-11 victory. After facing Buffalo, the Jets play three of of their final four regular-season games against sub-.500 teams.

The further the Jets are able to go with Sanchez as their quarterback, the less anyone is going to care about stats.

After all, it’s great to be considered among the NFL’s elite quarterbacks, but what matters most to fans is whether they have a winner. Rex Ryan certainly believes the Jets do with Sanchez. Now the quarterback needs to prove his coach right.

Maria Burns Ortiz is a freelance sports journalist, chair of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists' Sports Task Force, and a regular contributor to Fox News Latino. Follow her on Twitter: @BurnsOrtiz

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