Meadowlands Mark has even Broadway Joe on his feet cheering these days.
Joe Namath stood anxiously in front of his TV — there was no way he could sit through this — at his home in Florida on Sunday during the Jets' latest tension-filled game. As he watched Mark Sanchez coolly lead New York to yet another stunning victory, the Hall of Fame quarterback saw shades of himself.
"I don't think anyone would hesitate to say, yeah, this kid, he can be one of the best," Namath said. "No doubt about it."
From a guy who made perhaps the most famous guarantee in sports history, that's quite an endorsement.
But that's the kind of reputation Sanchez is earning with late-game comebacks, overtime victories, clutch performances and levelheaded leadership for a team tied for the best record in the league. It's an exciting combination the Jets haven't seen from a young quarterback since Namath delivered the franchise its only title more than 40 years ago.
"Every week, Mark has that confidence," running back LaDainian Tomlinson said, "that he can do it week after week if we need him to."
They certainly have the last few games, and he's delivered in a big way.
"He's a force to be reckoned with," center Nick Mangold said.
There were the two winning drives in overtime on the road at Detroit and Cleveland, when Sanchez went into the huddle each time and commanded the confidence of his teammates.
"You can see the fire in his eyes," fullback Tony Richardson said.
Then there was Sunday's improbable victory over Houston when he marched New York down the field with less than a minute left.
"My daughter, she looked at me after Houston scored and I said, 'Hey, we've got enough time here. This is terrific,'" said Namath, who still connects with fans on his site, BroadwayJoe.tv, as well as Facebook and Twitter. "Sanchez and those guys have already shown me that they can win in the end and play the full 60 minutes — and then some."
Comeback ability was a knock on Sanchez coming out of the draft, only because no one saw it. He benefited from playing at Southern California, which rarely trailed opponents.
"It's always been something that I've kind of wanted," Sanchez said. "To me, that was, 'All right, give me a chance to come back. I'm going to win it, not making a miraculous play, but just making the plays we know how to make.'"
Sanchez watched a television special with some teammates last week on some of the NFL's top 10 comeback wins. That was something he thought about before taking the field for his own shot against the Texans.
"Boom, we're in that situation," Sanchez said. "I'm playing catch on the sidelines like, 'All right, here we go.'"
Sanchez, the AFC player of the week, has thrown for an NFL-leading 1,206 yards in his last four games. But it hasn't been all about his arm. An increased focus on making plays with his legs has paid off, just as it did for one of his favorites, Hall of Famer John Elway.
"One of those guys that's a fighter, just never dies," Sanchez said. "He always gave his team another chance."
That's what Sanchez, who recently turned 24 and is just 25 regular-season games into his career, is doing for the Jets. He's already led them to the AFC championship game and coach Rex Ryan hasn't been hesitant to declare his team a Super Bowl favorite despite having a young quarterback.
"Lady Luck will help, as well as his continued growth, but I wouldn't put any limitations on Mark Sanchez," Namath said. "No way."
Tomlinson said the thought of playing with Sanchez helped make up his mind this offseason about signing with New York. Ryan calls him "Cool Hand Luke," and it has been particularly fitting during this recent stretch.
"They know he's the guy and he's the boss out there," Ryan said before smiling. "The kid doesn't have a whole lot going for him, to be honest with you, but we'll settle for him."
Serious in the huddle, the kid in Sanchez comes out after big plays — fist pumps, mad dashes down the field and hugs on the sidelines. He has become the type of electrifying player that even opposing players appreciate.
"We're both Mexican," Cincinnati wide receiver Chad Ochocinco said, laughing. "Of course he's exciting."
And, also quite the prankster.
"He's a big kid," Richardson said. "I think that's something outside people don't see."
Like the times he sneakily covers the black seats in the offensive meeting rooms with water, so offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer's pants get soaked when he sits.
Or, like last Saturday, when Schottenheimer had a doughnut on a table and Sanchez came along and stuck his finger in it. Disgusted, Schottenheimer pushed it aside and Sanchez stuffed it into his mouth.
Punter Steve Weatherford has become close with Sanchez, hanging out with him away from football.
"My little boy loves him," he said. "Just a good dude. He's not like some guys you play with where the media portrays them as a really good guy, but off the field, he's not. Mark's the real deal."
Just like Namath in his prime, everyone always wants to know what Sanchez is up to now. Who's he dating? What Broadway show is he seeing next? What kind of endorsement deals is he signing off on?
"To be able to come into that atmosphere, that environment in New York, with the monster that the media is there," Ochocinco said, "and to be successful and to be able to carry that weight on your shoulders ... he's handling it perfect, man."
Namath agrees, saying Sanchez has proven himself to be a humble guy who thrives in pressure.
"I see his intensity when he's playing and his love for the game and respect for his teammates, big-time," Namath said. "The spotlight, it can draw him away from the focus, but he hasn't allowed that to happen. He's learning on his feet and he's doing a wonderful job of it."
Win after thrilling win.