Favre, Manning, Brees _ And Sanchez?

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees — and Mark Sanchez?

Yep, the rookie from Southern Cal is keeping some heady company. He’s gotten a whole lot further than some of the best quarterbacks in NFL history did in their first seasons, too.

The fifth overall pick in last year’s draft is part of the NFL’s final four, playing for a spot in the Super Bowl just like the game’s career passing leader, the league’s only four-time MVP, and the sport’s most accurate passer.

Sure could be overwhelming.

“This feels right,” Sanchez said confidently. “It feels good. It feels the way you dream it would feel just growing up. You get to go play at Indy again for an AFC championship your rookie year, that’s unbelievable.”

Maybe not. A rookie quarterback has gotten to the AFC title game in three of the last six years. The other two, Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger and Baltimore’s Joe Flacco, fell short of the Super Bowl.

Now Sanchez gets his chance.

“I think it’s interesting that, you know, a rookie quarterback last year, Joe Flacco, AFC championship game,” said New Orleans’ Brees, who chuckles and changes the subject when asked about his first pro season. “A rookie quarterback this year, Mark Sanchez, AFC championship. I guess Roethlisberger, when he was a rookie, they went to an AFC championship. So there have been a bunch of rookie quarterbacks here over the last five or six years.”

The theory that QBs fresh out of college should sit and watch died a while ago. Maybe it began to disappear with Manning, who never has missed a start since being the top selection in 1998.

Favre barely saw the field with Atlanta in 1991, throwing five passes (two were intercepted) before being traded to Green Bay. Brees came along 10 years later and had only one start for San Diego as a rookie, perhaps because the Chargers had been so burned by using Manning contemporary Ryan Leaf early on they were wary of going with a youngster again.

Now, it’s no big deal for the new kid in town to line up behind center from the outset. Or, in the last half-dozen seasons, to play deep into January.

“Every guy wants to be a part of the Super Bowl,” said the 40-year-old Favre, who got there in his sixth and seventh season, going 1-1, but has not returned. “As you get older, you appreciate it more. Especially since you’ve been there, you know how difficult it is to get back. I don’t care how good you are. I keep using Pittsburgh as an example, and the Giants a couple of years ago. You never know. Seize the moment.”

The Jets have done a lot of seizing recently, winning seven of eight, including four in a row, two in the playoffs on the road — about as difficult a challenge as a rookie quarterback could face. Sanchez met the hurdles thanks as much to the Jets’ strengths around him as to what he has achieved with his arm and legs.

Sanchez is 24 for 38 for 282 yards in wins at Cincinnati and San Diego. Those would be one-game numbers for Favre, Manning or Brees.

But New York’s top-ranked running game and No. 1-rated defense have made Sanchez’s inexperience almost a nonfactor. That’s nearly enough to make a veteran quarterback jealous.

“Obviously he’s got a great team around him: great run game, great defense,” Brees said. “He makes plays when he needs to, manages the game well. His offensive coordinator is Brian Schottenheimer, who was my quarterback coach in San Diego. Brian’s done a great job helping him prepare and learn the game and he’s gotten a little faster dose of the learning curve maybe than most.”

Sanchez agrees, recognizing that the conservative approach — if letting a rookie be your quarterback from the get-go can be considered conservative — not only has worked for the team, but has been a boon for him.

“It’s worked to this point, and hopefully in the future I’ll be able to take more chances and really get a feel for things,” he said. “Right now, it’s better to be smart than good.

“I do feel more comfortable as the days go on and as I get experience each game. There is no substitute for that experience. I think the biggest thing that has made the difference in these last few games is knowing what it takes to win and also knowing what gets you beat.”

Those are lessons Favre, Manning and Brees certainly have learned. Sanchez, of course, has gotten a terrific head start in his pro football education. After all, Manning went 3-13 as a rookie, in the same season the Jets last made it to the AFC championship game.

Even if he does outdo those quarterbacking greats now, Sanchez recognizes just how much more he needs to know.

“I’ll get a chance in the offseason to sit back and look at a lot of these games from this year,” he said, “and watch (Tom) Brady and Manning and Drew Brees and Favre and take a look at everybody’s game and see how it can be applied to mine.”

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