Why you should care

When it comes to sports, the “Great Man Theory” never seems to die. 

Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Mark Sanchez has to be one of the most bipolar performers in the NFL, judging from the headlines. For two weeks he was the comeback kid, the savior of the Eagles season after filling in for injured starter Nick Foles and winning two games. Never mind that he played pretty poorly in those two wins. “If you listened to ESPN Radio today or watched ESPN, you’d think Mark Sanchez was the MVP of the NFL,” Jon “Stugotz” Weiner said on his ESPN Radio show last week. “Sanchez gets the last laugh” over the New York Jets team that cut him earlier this year, wrote the New York Post.

On Sunday, Sanchez played poorly again (OK, he played really poorly), but since the Eagles lost this time, Sanchez is now a goat, a man whose “history hangs over his head like an anvil.” The history reference is apt, as the same reputational fluctuation hit Sanchez in New York, where he went from being the beloved “Sanchize” quarterback Jets fans had dreamed of since Super Bowl-winner Joe Namath left town, to a quarterback so bad the team was actually willing to pay him $20.5 million not to play.

In NYC, where skyscrapers are the tallest and subway tunnels the deepest, the media are always looking for a saint or sacrificial lamb.

But here’s the dirty little secret about Mark Sanchez: He’s been the same guy his entire career, a remarkably steady, consistently poor (though not awful) performer. If Sanchez had been drafted by some mediocre team in a small city, he would be just another borderline starter whose name you barely remember. But Mark Sanchez had the great fortune (literally, given his contracts) and misfortune of playing in New York City, where the skyscrapers are the tallest, the subway tunnels are the deepest and the media are always on the lookout for a saint or a sacrificial lamb.

In his first couple of years, Sanchez and the Jets made back-to-back AFC championship games in 2009 and 2010. Despite Sanchez’s being inaccurate, unable to come up with many big plays and more likely to turn the ball over than throw it for a touchdown, the Jets had a stellar defense and powerful rushing attack; Sanchez just had to stay out of the way for the team to win.

Mark Sanchez falling to the ground after running into the butt of one of his offensive linemen.

Mark Sanchez falls to the ground after running into the backside of one of his offensive linemen, resulting in a fumble.

Source Chris Szagola/Cal Sport Media/ZUMApress

But Sanchez couldn’t just be a bad quarterback on an otherwise very good team. This is the sports media world we’re talking about, where oversimplification rules, and the “Great Man Theory” prevails. Since his stats were bad, Sanchez was ascribed all manner of unmeasurable assets — he was a born leader, a gritty performer who didn’t light up the scoreboard but “knows how to win the big game.”

Suddenly, Sanchez was no longer a fun-loving gunslinger worthy of a GQ cover; he was a bad decision-maker living a “playboy lifestyle.”

Then the tide turned, as the highly touted Jets underperformed and missed the playoffs two seasons in a row. The culminating moment came on Thanksgiving night 2012 against the archrival New England Patriots, when Sanchez ran blindly into the backside of his own offensive lineman and fumbled the ball, leading to a Patriots touchdown, the lowest lowlight of a 49-19 shellacking. The “Butt Fumble” became a ubiquitous Internet meme and pretty much sealed Sanchez’s fate with New York fans and the media. Sanchez was no longer a fun-loving gunslinger worthy of the GQ cover; he was a bad decision-maker living a “playboy lifestyle” and easy fodder for tabloid puns. Sanchez missed the 2013 season with a shoulder injury and was promptly cut this past offseason.

But despite the huge swing in public and media perception, Sanchez was a remarkably consistent performer with the Jets. The NFL’s Passer Rating metric is a flawed measure of quarterback performance, but it’s about the best readily available statistic. Sanchez finished 28th (out of 32 eligible QBs) and 27th in Passer Rating during his two “good” years, and 23rd and 31st in his two “bad” seasons. He was always pretty bad, it was just the team and the media morality tale around him that changed.

The same thing has happened in microcosm over the last three weeks with the Eagles. Sanchez came in, turned the ball over and won, resulting in positively hagiographic press coverage.

Then this past weekend Sanchez turned the ball over (with one terrible play garnering comparisons to the Butt Fumble) and the Eagles were trounced by an incandescent Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers. So Sanchez is no longer the hope of Eagles Nation; he’s just a guy they’ll have to suffer through until Foles can rush back from his broken collarbone. But once again, if you look at Sanchez’s stats for the season, he’s right on track for his customarily crappy output.

There seems to be quite a bit of unfairness in such a consistent player being built up so high and laid so low by fans and the media. But Sanchez has benefited from good timing, signing big contracts for more than he ever deserved during the highs, and getting to date the likes of Kate Upton even during the lows. Maybe he is having the last laugh after all.

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