By DENNIS WASZAK Jr.
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Mark Sanchez understands the New York Jets’ starting quarterback job is still up for grabs.
That doesn’t mean he expects the final result to be anything different from what it has been the last four seasons: with him under center leading the team every Sunday.
“Naturally, as you progress in your career, you try and tighten up and hone in,” Sanchez said Thursday after voluntary workouts. “But, like I’ve said, this is something I dreamed about my whole life and now I’m not planning on letting go.”
Sanchez is approaching this offseason as though he is the starting quarterback, despite his hold on the job being extremely tenuous. There is one less competitor in the mix, however, with David Garrard planning to retire because his balky left knee has continued to give him trouble.
So with Garrard stepping away and New York cutting Tim Tebow two weeks ago, Sanchez, Geno Smith, Greg McElroy and Matt Simms are left on the roster.
“Nothing’s changed,” Sanchez said of his approach without Garrard on the team. “My mindset is the same: just stay focused, master this offense, improve on my fundamentals, be as accurate as possible, take care of the football and lead this team.”
It had been speculated by some that the competition to start would be between Garrard, Sanchez and Smith, despite GM John Idzik, coach Rex Ryan and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg insisting it would be “open” to everyone.
Now, Sanchez appears to have a clear advantage, although the organization is excited about the potential of Smith, the former record-breaking West Virginia quarterback who slid in the draft from a potential top-10 pick all the way to the second round.
“He looks good,” Sanchez said of Smith. “He’s sharp. He works hard, doesn’t say too much. Just plays his butt off and competes. That’s great.”
Sanchez said Garrard’s retirement was “a little bit abrupt,” but praised the 35-year-old veteran for “a career to celebrate.”
Now, Sanchez is the veteran of the bunch in the quarterback room. That could still change, of course, if the team pursues another experienced player to push Sanchez and mentor Smith, but there aren’t many options. The list includes the likes of Vince Young, JaMarcus Russell, Matt Leinart, Trent Edwards, Byron Leftwich, Charlie Batch — oh, and, Tebow.
Sanchez, however, insists that McElroy and Simms should very much be in the quarterback conversation.
“Don’t count those other two out,” he said. “Trust me, it’s a fierce deal. We’re all excited.”
Sanchez is particularly thrilled to put a miserable season behind him in which he turned the ball over 26 times, including when he ran into the backside of guard Brandon Moore — the blooper-reel favorite “Butt-Fumble” — last November against New England.
He was benched for the first time in his career late last season, and appeared to lose confidence. And, the hits keep coming for Sanchez. Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith said during a radio interview Wednesday that, “I wouldn’t let Mark Sanchez throw me a paper bag sandwich.”
Sanchez took the high road, refusing to fire back and instead wishing Smith and the Panthers well.
And, frankly, he’s got bigger things to worry about these days.
Mornhinweg said during a conference call with season ticket holders Wednesday that the Jets would have a “bona fide quarterback competition. Period.” He added that he has thought a lot about how the snaps would be distributed in practices, but there’s now one less quarterback to consider with Garrard no longer in the mix.
Mornhinweg also indicated he’d like someone to rise to the top of the competition “quicker rather than later.”
“I have no idea,” Sanchez said when asked if he could be that guy. “I’m focused on playing the very best I can. As soon as they tell me, ‘You’re the guy; you’re not the guy,’ then we’ll know. They’ve given me no indication on when that should be.”
Sanchez has been working with Mornhinweg and new quarterbacks coach David Lee on cutting down his turnovers, making him throw the ball away in practice rather than forcing a play and making a mistake.
“Marty touched on it,” Sanchez said. “He said it’s a mentality. There’s a point where you bite your nails growing up or something and then you just stop. Whatever it takes, you just stop. It’s a habit. It becomes a way of thinking and a way of making decisions on the field.”
Sanchez is also looking forward to playing in Mornhinweg’s West Coast-style offense, something he was somewhat familiar with from his days at Southern California.
“I’m from the West Coast,” he said with a big grin.
He also spent time with Jeff Garcia, who played for Mornhinweg in Philadelphia, during the offseason and thinks this is a system in which he can be consistently successful.
“I love to feel that way, and that’s the way I do (feel),” Sanchez said. “I feel good about everything going in, about the progression of things.”