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.
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