FLORHAM PARK, N.J. >> Mark Sanchez smiled for a split-second when a reporter labeled him as the most scrutinized guy in the New York Jets’ locker room.
“Nooo,” the quarterback said, dripping with sarcasm.
Yep, it’s true. And it’s been that way for more than three years now, long before Tim Tebow ever got here. But the arrival of the world’s most popular backup quarterback means even more attention focused not only on what Tebow does, but every throw Sanchez makes — even if it’s only the third day of the Jets’ organized team activities.
“His popularity draws a lot of this,” Sanchez said Thursday, motioning toward the throng of reporters and cameras around him. “But at the same time, I wouldn’t be in this position if I couldn’t handle it. I’m prepared for it.”
Sanchez has had a few months to do so, ever since the Jets surprised the NFL — and their starting quarterback — by pulling off a deal to acquire the popular Tebow from the Denver Broncos. Despite all the doubts among fans and media that the two can co-exist, Sanchez has been nothing but complimentary of his new teammate.
“I know he’s going to help us all over the field,” Sanchez said. “I think that’s good for us.”
Sanchez was sharp in the Jets’ first session of OTAs open to the media, while Tebow threw two interceptions in a three-play span.
Sure, it’s only May, and the Jets have made it clear that Sanchez is the starting quarterback, but it was an encouraging performance. The play of the day was Sanchez’s 80-yard toss to speedy second-round draft pick Stephen Hill.
“This kid is in great shape, as are most of the guys, but I just think he’s stronger,” coach Rex Ryan said. “That arm, it looks stronger to me. He’s really zipping it and also throwing with touch.”
While many in the media continue to speculate about when in the season Tebow will eventually assume the starting job, Sanchez brushes it all aside.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself and I think you guys (the media) know that and everybody in the building knows that, that I want to make it right for me and for this team,” said Sanchez, who appeared noticeably relaxed and loose. “Whether we have Matt Simms or (G.J.) Kinne or (Greg) McElroy, or it happens to be Tim Tebow behind me, that’s fine. It doesn’t matter. I’m playing hard and trying to get this thing right for all of us out here.”
Eli Manning went through the same scrutiny in his first few seasons — albeit without a backup who’s even more popular beyond football than he is — and went out and won a Super Bowl in his fourth season.
“No pressure,” a grinning Sanchez said, who has four playoff road victories in his three seasons. “No, I just think about learning this offense and making sure we’re all on the same page. Don’t look too far ahead. We’ve just finished Day 3 of OTAs.”
Meanwhile, Tebow, who was acquired in March to be Sanchez’s backup, was picked off by Bart Scott and then newly signed Yeremiah Bell two plays later in 7-on-7 drills.
“We’ve had some ups and downs,” Ryan said. “He was better the first day (of OTAs) … but I think he’s done well.”
Tebow knows better than to get too discouraged about a few misfires in a practice so early in the offseason.
“It’s definitely frustrating, but it’s 7-on-7s and both of those plays, it was the first time I ran them,” he said. “I’ll learn from it and honestly, it won’t bother me again. When you make a bad play, put it behind you and move on, and I feel like I did. I went out there the next team period and felt like I did OK, so again you just have to remember where you are and what you were doing.”
Tebow also had offensive coordinator Tony Sparano bark at him after both interceptions.
“Both times, he was saying: ‘You’ve got to take your checkdown. It’s right in front of you,'” Tebow said. “That’s obviously a learning point for me.”
The Jets are only installing the base offense right now, so there has been no work on the wildcat packages Tebow will be involved in during the season. But Tebow was used as the personal protector on the punt unit during special teams drills, something he started earlier in the week — for the first time in his football career.
“It’s definitely that I’ll try to get used to,” he said. “It’s unique, but it’s fun. I had a good time out there.”
Ryan insists he has no concern about potential injuries that could occur by using Tebow on special teams. Well, at least to his backup quarterback.
“They’re going to line up, and they’re going to come after Tebow,” Ryan said. “I can tell you one guy that’s not afraid of it, and that’s Tim Tebow. And I’m not afraid of it either. What he can help us with, being that personal protector on the punt team, is, ‘Are you sure you really want to rush that punt?’ If it is fourth-and-6 or 7, are you sure you really want to rush it, because we may fake it.”
It appears Tebow is also having a lot of fun in the locker room. As he walked into the room and the pack of reporters and camera crews surrounded him at his locker, several teammates started yelling, “Teee-bowww!”
“It’s fun,” Tebow said, laughing. “It’s good. Absolutely.”
Then, a few even busted out into chants of “Lo-lo! Lo-lo!” — a reference to Lolo Jones, the U.S. Olympic hurdler who recently told HBO’s “Real Sports” that she doesn’t believe in premarital sex, something she has in common with Tebow and prompting some to suggest that the two link up.
Jones even weighed in on the banter, writing on her Twitter page: “Ask Tebow if he wants a glass of milk. If he says yes, ask him if he prefers chocolate. If he says no, then no more Tebow date suggestions.”
Ryan is happy to see all the joking around among his players, a departure from the tension that helped sink the Jets’ season last year. But he and Sanchez know the season is still a few months away, and there’s plenty of work to do.
“It’s a new experience, but I have plenty to draw on — the ups and downs, highs and lows of a season and understanding that this is a marathon, not a race and don’t get caught up in who completed what ball and who didn’t,” Sanchez said. “Don’t let your mind even go there. It’s not worth it. It’s a waste. Just focus on the next play and have a short memory.”
Notes: S LaRon Landry has not attended OTAs, which are voluntary. He is still recovering from an Achilles injury, and CB Darrelle Revis said the team was told Landry “has family issues and that was that. I didn’t get any other insight on that and I haven’t talked to him. Once he gets back from his family issues, he’ll be on board for us.” WR Santonio Holmes is in Germany with other NFL players in support of U.S. troops. The Jets also said CB Antonio Cromartie was spending time with his family. … LB David Harris didn’t participate with a calf issue that Ryan called “minor.”