During Sunday's Fox telecast of Mark Sanchez's public flogging, in between the moments when Brian Billick repeated "jump street" and read copy for New Girl, a graphic popped up: Mark Sanchez, it read, had turned the ball over 81 times since his NFL career began in 2009, the second most turnovers of any player in that span.
That was no surprise—Sanchez's fumbles and interceptions have punctuated most New York Jets games since he arrived. But who was the one player with more turnovers than the hapless Sanchez? Eli Manning, the two-time Super Bowl-winning Giants quarterback, the intrametropolitan envy of Jets fans. A winner. With 84 turnovers to Sanchez's 81.
How could this be? Football Outsiders's similarity scores look at Sanchez's last two years of stats and find his top comparable is none other than Eli Manning, from 2006 to 2007. Are the hero and the goat of New York quarterbacking really the same kind of player? If so, is Sanchez secretly good, or is Eli secretly terrible?
Nope. The two quarterbacks arrived at the same turnover figure by radically different paths. And the only hope the Jets have turning Sanchez into Manning would be by changing their entire theory of what to do with him.
The difference is a matter of risk. Eli Manning is a gambler. He holds the ball too long, increasing the chance he'll get sacked, and he is not a notably precise passer. But when he makes a risky throw, he makes it deep downfield, where there's a big payoff if the Giants receiver can catch it.
The Jets, meanwhile, have tried to coach Sanchez to be prudent. Given the strengths of their running game and their defense, they've asked him not to force things, to look for his checkdown receivers, to keep it safe. But successful conservative quarterbacks, the real game managers, are decisive and accurate. Sanchez hesitates, the way Manning does, and like Manning, he's no pinpoint passer. The difference is, the Jets don't have Sanchez try for the big payoff.
in 2011, Eli Manning led the league with 109 deep pass attempts, passes thrown 20 yards or more. The result was a career year, as judged by complex and simple metrics (Football Outsiders' DVOA, quarterback rating, yards per attempt). His completion rate fell two percentage points from the prior season, but he added 900 passing yards and, surprisingly, threw nine fewer interceptions. Sanchez had only 57 deep attempts that year, ranking 20th in the league.
(Manning hasn't thrown deep as much this year—he has 52 deep attempts to Sanchez's 47; Andrew Luck leads the league with 84—but he's spent much of the season in an unexplained funk that looks a lot like an injury.)
Sanchez is a poor passer in general. Pro Football Focus calculates that this year, Sanchez has the league's 29th-best accuracy percentage—a version of completion percentage, adjusted for drops, throwaways, spikes, batted passes, and the like—with only 66.9 percent of his throws on target. But his deep-passing accuracy percentage ranks 17th in the league. So while his entire body of work is woeful, this one facet of his game, deep passing, has been average.
The Jets' efforts to protect Sanchez from risk miss this point: Any pass Mark Sanchez makes is risky. What makes Sanchez disastrous is that so many of his passes are low-reward. He gets picked off on the checkdown plays. It's especially nightmarish to turn the ball over on checkdowns, because the intercepting defender often has an open field in front of him. An intercepted deep pass, however, involves lots of potential tacklers—it functions like a short punt.
(We should note that two of Sanchez's three interceptions on Sunday occurred while he was bucking the usual pattern and taking chances downfield. The Jets seemed to be OK with that: Sanchez didn't get pulled from the game until he blew two short throws for a three-and-out in the third quarter.)
Here are some images of Sanchez—and Manning, for contrast—at work. Green circles indicate open options who weren't thrown to; red circles indicate receivers who were. A red circle on Sanchez himself means he took a sack.
In Sunday's game, Sanchez did the usual bad-quarterback stuff.
He has his arm cocked and Jeremy Kerley's open, with room to run. But Sanchez takes the ball down and gets sacked.
Here, with a receiver separating from coverage on either side of the field, Sanchez takes a checkdown and throws off-target.
But the definitive Sanchez move, through the years, is to get intercepted on a conservative throw.
Sanchez has Plaxico Burress, who is attacking the Ravens' zone, and Santonio Holmes, who is standing on the line of scrimmage, with no defenders nearby, because he hasn't gone anywhere yet. Rather than chance it with Burress, Sanchez goes to the closer target—but first he hesitates, giving the Ravens' Lardarius Webb time to jump the pass, pick it off, and run it back for a touchdown.
Sanchez passes up a man breaking free on the outside to throw to his running back. But Sanchez throws high, off Shonn Greene's hands and into Rob Ninkovich's.
Jets are down two touchdowns, blazing a comeback. The Patriots are playing soft coverage. But Sanchez passes up his outside receivers for a LaDainian Tomlinson catch-and-run. Problem is, Rob Ninkovich gets there first, catches it, and runs. Patriots touchdown.
Third down! Jets need a touchdown to take the lead! What does Sanchez do? He checks it down to a covered running back! The pass is intercepted, and the Jets lose.
Sanchez has an open Clyde Gates one-on-one on the outside. But he takes the "conservative" throw to Jeremy Kerley. The floating safety reads Sanchez and picks him off. The Jets are soon down 35-0.
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Now look instead at Manning. His aggressiveness occasionally results in interceptions—
Here Sheldon Brown closes on an open Victor Cruz and deflects the ball to Usama Young, who intercepts it.
But usually that's not how it goes:
Manning is here looking at Victor Cruz in bracketed coverage, with the Niners' fearsome pass rush closing in. What does he do? Well, he throws it to Cruz—first down!
Here it's third-and-6. Eli's got an open man in the flat who might be able to make his defender miss and take the ball upfield. But he also has Domenik Hixon, who's a half-step ahead of Chris Culliver deep. The Mark Sanchez play, straight out of the game manager's handbook, would be to take the checkdown. But Manning throws it to Hixon, for a 39-yard completion. Four plays later, New York is in San Francisco's end zone, taking a lead they never relinquish.
And an all-22 screenshot, from the moment Manning releases the ball:
Manning is driving, looking for a score before halftime. Cruz breaks open early on his right side, on a short route toward the sideline. Hakeem Nicks breaks open late, on a short route toward the other sideline. But Manning takes a third throw—to Martellus Bennett on the seam route, even though it's covered better than the outside throws. If the sideline throws had worked, they would have set up long, challenging field goals—55 yards or more. But the seam throw finds a receiver whose momentum is taking him toward the goal line. It's a deep pass worth throwing. And Manning just plops the throw in between the linebacker and safety. Jon Gruden is right to lose his shit—it's a perfect, perfect throw. Giants kick a field goal, and lead 13-10 at the half.
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If Mark Sanchez continues starting for the Jets (and it looks like he will) the Jets should remind themselves, and Sanchez should remind himself, that he's no good at managing games. They'll have to let him try to win them.