FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Mark Sanchez was riding high at a 400-yard/5 TD, Heisman-like game for the USC Trojans in 2009 as he led them to a Rose Bowl victory. It was his first, and only year, as a starter for Southern Cal — as he chose to leave the college game for the NFL Draft.

Pete Carroll, Sanchez’s then-collegiate coach and current head coach of this week’s opponent — the Seattle Seahawks, expressed his doubts about Sanchez’s transition to the NFL — something Carroll had first-hand experience in. As a coach of the Jets in 1994 and the Patriots in 1997, the success Carroll had in college translated to nothing more than mediocrity in the NFL.

Questioning the young Mission Viejo QB’s game experience and maturity, Carroll advised Sanchez to stay the extra year — trading the top-5 dollars for professional longevity.

Sanchez disagreed, respectfully.

In the early goings, Sanchez looked to have the last laugh on the topic. He was drafted fifth overall to be the franchise quarterback in New York and led his team to back-to-back AFC Championship games. All the while Carroll began to look like a bitter coach who was going to say or do anything to retain his top offensive player.

Oh, how quickly perception can change in a few years.

Mark Sanchez was publically questioned by then-head coach Pete Carroll for his decision to leave USC early. Did Carroll have a point? ( Photo).

By most accounts Sanchez has regressed in the two years since the last AFC Championship game appearance leading many to re-examine Carroll’s pre-NFL advice for his former quarterback. Carroll did retreat on his comments made before the 2009 NFL Draft, saying that Sanchez has since proved him wrong, however the proof may be in the pudding that Carroll was on to something.

Sanchez has seen an increase in turnovers and a decrease in completion percentage and QB rating since 2010. Anonymous sources, team personnel, players and media alike all have, at one point or another, publicly questioned his mental make-up in handling the pressure of being a quarterback under New York’s bright lights.

What exactly would have an extra year at USC done for Sanchez? The positives are quite obvious:

  • Southern Cal is the professional football team in the Los Angeles area, getting another year in a major media spotlight could have done wonders for his demeanor on camera and in front of the microphone.
  • It could have been bigger sample size to see how Sanchez responds to adversity. It’s easy to be upbeat and confident when things are going well, but how about when times are tough? Sometimes, as Sanchez has shown, simply saying the right thing isn’t enough. It’s how you say it.
  • Sanchez’s 59 interceptions and 15 lost fumbles are both areas that could be improved with better amateur-level seasoning.

Sanchez, however, chose to take the big pay day — signing a 5-year deal worth upwards of $50 million ($28 million guaranteed), easily the highest contract in Jets history. On top of that he received a three-year extension that jumped his five-year salary the seventh highest for QB in the NFL at $58 million.

His decision paid off, literally.

His decision to leave USC early was calculated business decision. Put simply, Sanchez was the second-best QB on the board in 2009 — his only first-round competition at quarterback was Matthew Stafford and Josh Freeman. To wait for 2010 to enter the draft would most likely see a slip in his stock with healthy competition for college-dominant quarterbacks like Tim Tebow, Sam Bradford and Colt McCoy.

With hindsight at 20/20 Sanchez could have easily been the first quarterback taken given improvement on an impressive junior campaign — giving opportunity to fine tune of some the rough spots of his game that continues to plague him.

As Sanchez-supporters hold on to his two trips to an AFC title game with a tiger-like grip, memories of those teams are fading fast in the distance — with the future offering a bleaker outlook. Now facing the Carroll-coached Seahawks in Seattle, where they are 4-0 and giving up 15.5 points per game, the former coach of Sanchez is looking forward to proving just how right he was four years ago.

“It’ll be cool. The people I love the most I love to beat the most,” Carroll said.

While Jets fans begin to ask the question if it was right taking a chance on the quarterback from USC, Sanchez has $58 million answers to the very same question. It’s not, however, a question he must answer himself, rather one he must answer to the fans who are so emotionally invested in his success and failure.
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