FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) — Mark Sanchez is still the face of the franchise.
He also is still the New York Jets' starting quarterback.
It's not Tim Tebow. At least not now. And Sanchez's teammates and coaches insist that will not change.
Not next week. Not next month. Not this season.
While Tebow's role remains limited through seven games, it has become clear Sanchez is still the team leader. Whether that leads to a third postseason appearance in four seasons, or a second straight early end remains to be seen. But with the pressure on and many fans and media calling for Tebow to take over, Sanchez has rallied the past few weeks and re-established himself as the starting quarterback.
"That's how he is, and that's what he does," center Nick Mangold said Thursday. "Lesser people would have cracked earlier. He's done a fantastic job."
Maybe not so much from a statistical standpoint, but certainly from the perspective of remaining even-keeled during the handful of highs and lows already this season. He threw three touchdown passes in the season opener against Buffalo, but struggled in the next few by completing less than 50 percent of his throws in four straight games.
His 96.0 quarterback rating the last two weeks ranks him first in the AFC in that category during that span. Sanchez is coming off a 328-yard passing effort, the fourth-highest total of career, against New England and had one of his best all-around performances in a the 29-26 overtime loss.
Still, the lasting image of that game for many was the final play in which Sanchez was sacked and lost the football, sealing the win for the Patriots.
"I really can't fault Mark on that," offensive coordinator Tony Sparano said. "He got hit from the back and that's the way it came out."
Sanchez appeared somewhat upbeat after the loss, and former Jets star Joe Klecko, an analyst for SportsNet New York, even recently said that the quarterback might have become "a good loser."
"The guy definitely has a lot of emotion and he's a passionate player," said tight end Konrad Reuland, who grew up with Sanchez in Southern California. "He plays with passion and he's definitely a competitor, there's no doubt about that, despite what people are saying in the media or people or tweeting or whatever.
"I know the guy wants to win more than anything, so it's always good lining up next to a guy who'll do whatever it takes."
Now the Jets (3-4) are preparing for a critical home game against the AFC East-rival Miami Dolphins (3-3), a team they beat earlier in the season but is coming off a bye-week break and a two-game winning streak.
"I think we're just starting to hit our stride on offense," Sanchez said. "You saw a lot of it last game, we just have to keep playing. We have our running game going a little better now, since the last time we played them. That's really an important part as well. We're definitely an improving group.
"Really, since the San Francisco game (four weeks ago), just looking back at it, we've played some of our best football since then. I'm proud of that."
Coach Rex Ryan has been perhaps Sanchez's biggest supporter since the day the Jets traded up in the draft in 2009 to select him fifth overall. But he appeared to waffle a bit during the height of Sanchez's struggles when he said he was the starting quarterback "this week."
Many assumed that was a crack in the confidence, the first indication that Tebow could perhaps step in as the starter and send Sanchez to the bench.
Not so fast.
"I just think Mark is improving as a quarterback," Ryan said earlier this week. "We see it. I think statistically, (the New England game) was one of the best games that he's had. ... I thought he was tremendous. In that kind of environment, that kind of atmosphere, it kind of felt like almost a playoff-game type atmosphere and he was at his best. I'm excited about that. It all starts with the protection. We've all said, give this young man time to throw the football down the field, he can be effective."
Shonn Greene has been better in recent weeks, including a 161-yard effort against Indianapolis, and the return of tight end Dustin Keller from a hamstring injury has certainly been a boost for Sanchez and the rest of the offense.
The Jets went heavy with a run-first approach on offense in Sanchez's first two seasons, both ending with trips to the AFC championship game. Last year, under former coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, the offense struggled to establish an identity — some weeks, it was heavy pass and others, heavy run.
Sparano insisted he would re-establish the Ground-and-Pound style that Sanchez has thrived in. Tebow is also expected to be a major part of that as the season goes along, despite only being involved in 49 offensive snaps. But Sparano acknowledged that he "could do a better job" of using Tebow in certain situations — and that can only help Sanchez.
Some fans and media have speculated that perhaps the coaches don't fully trust Sanchez to make big plays in key moments. That's a notion both Ryan and Sparano have dismissed, and Sanchez has brushed off.
"I think they have plenty of trust in me," Sanchez said. "I don't look into things like that. They're trying to put us in a position to win and calling the best plays we possibly can. We're all in this thing together. He's not (thinking), 'We can't do this because of Mark.' I don't think that's his thought process at all."
Sanchez has taken plenty of heat throughout his short career in New York, leading to a perception that perhaps he has lost some confidence.
"We knew the kind of young man we were getting when we drafted him," Ryan said. "We felt good about it. We've said it: Not everybody can play quarterback in this town. There's no doubt about that. It might eat you up."
Reuland has seen Sanchez in tough situations all his life, from their days as teammates in youth basketball leagues and on the football field at Mission Viejo High School. Each time, Sanchez has thrived.
And Reuland expects nothing less this season.
"He has always been like that and been raised to be like that," Reuland said. "His Dad was a disciplinarian and my Dad was kind of similar. We grew up playing basketball together. We've taken the verbal abuse. Our high school coach was always riding him because he wanted him to be as good as he could possibly be.
"He's definitely used to letting things roll off his back a little bit, and I think that's probably the best way to be, you know? Just focus on what you can control and let everybody say what they want."
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