FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) — Santonio Holmes was chatting with Mark Sanchez in late March, the two rebuilding their fractured relationship, when the conversation turned to their newest teammate.
The New York Jets had traded for Tim Tebow earlier that day, and the news caught them by surprise — especially Sanchez. An already tumultuous offseason had taken an unexpected turn for the Jets quarterback.
"I think since Day 1, it was a focus that kind of rattled him a little," Holmes revealed Wednesday. "And I use that word only to say that, 'Wow. How did this happen?' Those were words that came out of his mouth.
"But I think he understands now that his role is to be the New York Jets' starting quarterback and Tebow is here to help us win as many games as he can help us win."
That's the plan, at least. But it hasn't been an easy road for Sanchez.
There has been lots of criticism from fans and media, and even anonymous teammates in the offseason. The Jets briefly flirted with the idea of bringing in Peyton Manning, and then came the big trade.
Even Holmes couldn't believe it when he first heard it, waiting until he saw the news on ESPN.
"When it happened, I honestly didn't know what to think," he said. "I didn't know whether we were getting rid of Mark or whether we were bringing in a new quarterback or what. But when I talked to Rex Ryan, he kind of put me at ease."
Holmes then gave Sanchez a pep talk, telling him to remember that he's the starting quarterback and this is his team. He also said he has seen Sanchez "replacing himself from what he did last year," and coming in with a confidence even he appreciates.
"I'm going to ride with him until the end," Holmes said.
Still, the presence of the NFL's most popular backup quarterback has many debating not if, but when Tebow will supplant Sanchez as the starter. The fact Sanchez and the first-team offense failed to score a touchdown in the preseason didn't help, and neither did owner Woody Johnson recently saying that "you can never have too much Tebow."
"He's selling seats, man," Sanchez said with a big grin. "Sellin' seats."
Through it all, Sanchez has been saying all the right things and his coaches and teammates have noticed.
"I don't think he gets enough credit for that," running back Shonn Greene said. "I think a lot of other people in that situation would break down or something like that."
Sanchez has instead played the part of the team leader, rebounding from his most disappointing season with a focus on returning the Jets to the playoffs and taking charge of the locker room — something that was lacking last season.
"I think it's human nature to want to hesitate after a tough year like last year," Sanchez said, "but you have to fight that and really attack it and that's what I'm trying to do."
He came into training camp in the best physical shape of his NFL career and with the biggest challenge to his starting job since he was drafted fifth overall by New York in 2009.
As the Jets prepare for the season opener against the Buffalo Bills Sunday, a lot of the focus has been on Tebow and how the team will use him on offense. He's clearly the backup, but with a do-it-all job description. That could mean Sanchez coming off the field and Tebow seeing as many as 20 snaps a game.
"I mean, I have to play the cards I'm dealt here," Sanchez said. "Keep working hard and leading this team, and do everything I can. It's our job to work together, Tim and I, so that's what we'll do for the betterment of the team."
As for Sanchez, much of the team's success rests on how he handles the pressure of being the second-most popular quarterback on the team, and the guy who needs to take the next step in his development in order to get the Jets back to the postseason.
"As a rookie, he was looked at as a weakness on our football team," coach Rex Ryan said. "And I said there's going to be a day where he's looked at as the strength of our team and not a weakness.
"I think that day is right now."
Sanchez has talked in the past about how he wondered about the doubts that crept into teammates' minds about him. But he never felt, even in private moments, that he was a weak member of the team.
"No, not at all," he said. "I just don't think like that. I don't think you can, playing this position. You can't last very long (if you do)."
Greene, who was in the same draft class as Sanchez, insisted that no one in his three-plus seasons has worked harder than the quarterback, from the early morning arrivals to study film and work out to lots of extra time after practice and into the night.
"That's a tough guy right there who does all of those things and takes criticism as well as he does and keeps working hard," Greene said. "I never could see him being the weakest link of this team."
Wide receiver Patrick Turner has played with Sanchez since their days at Southern California together, and he thinks the quarterback is taking "more of a business approach" these days. That means focusing on the task at hand and blocking out all of the outside chatter.
"He's always been a leader, and an example of that is how he handled the whole situation with Tebow," Turner said. "People were really looking for something, but he handled it maturely and accepted him as a teammate. He could've really approached it different. But that's what leaders do, they handle things like that well. He's done little things day in and day out."
That includes getting on teammates when they miss an assignment, run a wrong route or anything else that might hinder a drive. That's the aspect of being a leader that Sanchez had to gradually learn to become comfortable with.
"The toughest part is really ripping somebody," he said. "It just (stinks). You don't want to be a Debbie Downer out there, but at the same time, I'm going to be the one holding the football and I'm going to be the one standing at the podium talking to you guys after the game. I'll fall on the sword every time, but those guys have got to make catches, they've got to run the right route, they've got to be where they're supposed to be and be accountable.
"And it's my job to hold them accountable."
During training camp, Sanchez talked about how he tells the players that it's "my huddle" and he added Wednesday that it's a "serious" place to be. Everyone needs to do their jobs — or everyone suffers.
"We're all in this thing together," Sanchez said. "We have to hold each other accountable, and it starts with the quarterback."
NOTES: TE Dustin Keller (hamstring) and S Eric Smith (hip, knee) didn't participate in practice, but Keller thinks he'll be ready to play Sunday. ... Ryan acknowledged that many people picking the Jets to finish third in the AFC East is a motivating force for him. "Does it drive you a little bit? I'd be lying if I told you it didn't," he said. "Of course it does. Human nature is like, 'I want to show you.' That's exactly how I am. I've grown up that way all my life. There are smarter guys than me, and better looking, but I'm going to show you. There's a reason I'm here today." He added that the Jets are comfortable in the underdog role. "I think we're right where we need to be," he said.
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