SEATTLE – Mark Sanchez remembers those meetings at USC when Pete Carroll made sure to mention that the Trojans would be facing a former coach at a new school and just how important winning that game was to the head coach.
Carroll's desire apparently wasn't isolated to just other coaches.
"I love playing against our guys. The people that I love the most I like to beat the most," Carroll said in a conference call with New York reporters this week. "It's always been that way and as we go against our guys, the bad thing is the former USC guys always play well against us. I don't know what that is. I don't know if they're getting back at me or what."
Carroll and Sanchez reconnect for the first time since their days at USC on Sunday when the Jets (3-5) return from their bye week to face the Seahawks. New York is trying to avoid seeing its season spiral away, already having dropped four of its last five, while Seattle (5-4) is looking to go into its bye week with two straight wins at home.
Of course coming away with victory on Sunday is most important. But there is the added narrative of Sanchez and Carroll's past and the somewhat rocky departure between quarterback and coach when Sanchez decided to enter the NFL draft following his junior season.
Carroll believed Sanchez needed another year of refinement in college and wasn't shy about expressing those thoughts, not just to Sanchez either.
"Mark is going against the grain on this decision and he knows that. He knows that coming out early is a tremendous challenge for a quarterback and the statistics don't back up that it's easy to be successful in the way that he's going about it," Carroll said on the day in 2009 that Sanchez announced his intent to turn pro.
The belief that Sanchez should stay for his senior season at USC wasn't just Carroll's. Sanchez's father also believed he should finish his college eligibility. At the time Sanchez declared for the draft, he had started just one full season in his USC career. And while Sanchez went 12-1 in that junior season, threw for 34 touchdowns and more than 3,200 yards that still was very little experience to already believe he was ready for the NFL.
"It's just another opinion, and I respect it incredibly," Sanchez said. "But I also had to go with what I felt was right for me and he respected that, too. It really took on a life of its own and it wasn't really personal it was just his opinion on the matter."
Looking back now, nearly four years later, Carroll is proud of his former pupil. He was extremely impressed by Sanchez standing by his convictions and not wavering from his personal desire to play professionally even if those around him believed he was not ready.
"Mark had his mindset on doing this, and he was determined to prove that he could do it," Carroll said. "I support him in that and I love that he was feeling that way, I just told him what was the truth and he could have been better prepared if we would have had him for another year and I think it would've served him even better. But he did a marvelous job and I love what he's doing. Mark and I get along great and I follow him every week and it will be really fun playing against him this week."
Carroll has kept in contact with his former USC QB, but also tried to learn from afar some of what Sanchez endured during his rookie season in 2009 and make them applicable with his own rookie quarterback in Seattle, Russell Wilson. Sanchez won the first three games of his NFL career, then lost six of his next seven starts. In those first 10 games of his rookie season, Sanchez attempted at least 30 passes four times and threw 16 interceptions.
Sanchez improved later in his rookie season as the pass attempts diminished, along with the turnovers.
"We were built similarly to what Seattle is doing. Seattle right now probably throws the ball less than any team in the league, but is efficient when they do throw it. I don't know how many times we ran it, but I promise you it was more than any team in the league that first year," Jets coach Rex Ryan said. "That's what we thought we wanted to do. We wanted to be a physical football team that can run the football, and also wanted to make his reads easier for him."
Sanchez's task this week is trying to keep the Jets season from spiraling away. The Jets lost four of five heading into their bye week, capped by an embarrassing 30-9 loss at home to Miami. With an extra week of preparation the Seahawks know they could see anything from New York including a healthy dose of Tim Tebow.
"He's not always at quarterback, they move him around so they give you all kinds of problems with their concepts and stuff," Carroll said. "It's a totally different way of looking at the game when he's playing."
The Seahawks have tried to keep Wilson from throwing too much, putting less of the game on his arm and relying on the running of Marshawn Lynch, who enters this week at the No. 2 rusher in the NFL and 119 yards short of 1,000. Wilson has thrown 30 times twice — both losses — but has only eight interceptions and all of those have come on the road.
At home, Wilson has nine touchdowns, no interceptions and a league-best passer rating of 120.2. Most importantly, he's 4-0.
"I think the biggest thing and biggest goal is to always be consistent," Wilson said. "That's our goal, to be consistent week to week. We're improving. We're getting better."
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