From the moment the Jets handed the football to their $50 million phenom, quarterback Mark Sanchez, the future grew bright for one of the league’s snakebitten franchises.

Rookie QB Mark Sanchez will make his regular-season debut tomorrow as the new face of the franchise (Jets photo).
Rookie QB Mark Sanchez will make his regular-season debut tomorrow as the new face of the franchise (Jets photo).

While Sanchez arrived with heightened fanfare and steep expectations following a near record-setting campaign (34 TD passes in 2008) at the University of Southern California, he didn’t disappoint in his home opener with the Jets.

On Sanchez’s first play from scrimmage in the Jets’ 23-20 preseason loss to the Rams on Aug. 14, he sent the Meadowlands crowd roaring to its feet with a 48-yard strike to David Clowney. The lethal combination of arm strength and accuracy was the package Jets’ fans thought they were delivered one year earlier when future Hall of Famer Brett Favre jetted to New York, albeit with a shoulder that later deteriorated.

Sanchez did face his share of growing pains the following week as the Ravens’ ballhawking defense (3-8, 43 yds, 1 TD, 1 INT) tossed their kitchen sink of blitz packages at him, yet he didn’t crumble. The Jets’ golden boy drove the offense 64 yards late in the first half and threw a 19-yard scoring strike to Leon Washington.

He finished the preseason with a robust 64.9 completion percentage (24-for-37) with three touchdowns and only one interception, but the last four weeks have been a mere dress rehearsal for Sanchez. When the fifth overall pick takes the field tomorrow in Houston, the lights will shine brighter and the training wheels will be removed. Tomorrow, a new era officially begins for the Jets.

Sanchez’s strong preseason made Rex Ryan’s decision on naming a starting quarterback fairly easy, but the rookie’s highlight reel tosses against the Rams and Eagles will be forgotten if he gets off to a rocky start. In hindsight, it would be difficult to ask Sanchez to replicate the performance of last year’s rookie starting quarterbacks, Matt Ryan (16 TD, 3,440 yards) and Joe Flacco (14 TD, 60.0 completion percentage). Both Ryan and Flacco shoved aside the belief that rookie quarterbacks cannot win and instead made the playoffs.

For the Jets, taking a gamble on high-profile rookie quarterbacks remains a rarity. Since the start of the 1962 season (franchise’s final year as the Titans) the franchise has drafted only six quarterbacks in the first round. Of the six, Sanchez will be the first to start a season opener. The franchise’s most recognizable player, Hall of Famer Joe Namath (third overall, 1965), made his first start in the third game of his rookie season and was later named the Rookie of the Year.

Despite the Jets’ recent failures at quarterback, they certainly hope that Sanchez’s arrival will breathe new life into their offense. The Jets are stacked at running back with Washington, Thomas Jones and rookie third-round pick Shonn Greene  and therefore Ryan likely will not ask his quarterback to gun the football up and down the field. Sanchez will get his opportunities, but the key for any rookie signal-caller is to protect the ball. If he does not, the growing pains will mount early.

Most importantly for the Jets, Sanchez’s regular-season debut will bring renewed excitement to a success-starving franchise and provide hope that they are on a winning path. The Jets’ golden-boy might not ride on the same smooth path as Ryan did last year, however the expectations remain that he can deliver.

Judging by Sanchez’s impressive arm strength and accuracy, he will find his way into the highlight reels this season. He can start building on that collection tomorrow.

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