By Joseph Santoliquito

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Back in August, the front of Mark Sanchez’s locker wasn’t crowded. He came in, tended to his business, and left. It’s November now and the capricious ways of the NFL will place the klieg lights, notepads, pointed cell phones and tape recorders back in his face again.

This time, you sense, Sanchez will be able to handle it better. Much better. He’s been through it before.

He appears older than 27. Though back in August, he seemed relieved. Maybe it was from the weight of misplaced blame he bore for the debacle that’s become the New York Jets. Maybe it was from a season sitting, recovering a torn labrum in his right shoulder—the worst injury of his career—that forced the Jets to move in the Geno Smith direction.

Whatever it is, there was sagacity in Sanchez’s eyes. There was also something else, too—contentment.

Call Eagles’ coach Chip Kelly a “Quarterback Whisperer,” because Sanchez, the fifth overall pick in the 2009 draft, is in a far more genial place, where the “buttfumble” and a lost season seem like dots in the distance.

Kelly has been very impressed by Sanchez, who’s done nothing but throw crisp, accurate passes. He looked like a starter again, and when Nick Foles went down on Sunday in the Eagles’ 31-21 victory over Houston, the Eagles appeared in the very capable hands of Sanchez.

Kelly was effusive in his praise of Sanchez—one of Kelly’s guys, another quarterback Kelly has brought in along with drafting Matt Barkley (Kelly inherited Foles and Michael Vick from Andy Reid).

“One of the things that I’ve always said is we need two quarterbacks,” Kelly said on Monday. “I thought Mark did a great job in our system and we feel really confident with Mark. We obviously feel really bad for Nick, but we feel confident with Mark if we have to go in that direction.

 

 

“Mark prepared himself like he’s a starter. The one thing about him is that he’s always ready, he’s always focused. He’s always prepared to make plays. That’s part of his makeup. That’s what we really liked about him. I think he has a great work ethic and I think when you watch everything we did offensively, we didn’t change anything. He just wants to win. That’s the great thing about him. He truly understands what we’re trying to get accomplished here.”

Maybe that’s because Sanchez feels good about himself. He enjoys playing football again.

“I’m just having a good time,” Sanchez said back in August. “I love the facilities, I love the team, a ton of talent, I love the system and the coaching staff. It’s different. I am having fun. We had some tough times [in New York]. We battled through some injuries, personally, and as a team, and the coaching staff turned over. That’s a part of this league and this game.

“When things don’t work out, you just keep on plugging and try to get better and learn from those experiences. If there comes a time to move on, like it did, then you move on and try your best somewhere else and wish the guys you were with the very best.”

Sanchez said, even at 27, he’s still maturing. He’s experienced some of the highest highs in the NFL, road playoff wins, two-straight AFC championship games; and the lowest lows, a 6-10 finish in 2012 in which Sanchez unjustifiably received more than his share of the blame.

“You experience success so early against a ton of odds and you go through a bunch of turnover, and things change, and things aren’t as fun and things aren’t as good,” Sanchez said. “We weren’t playing as well; I’m not playing as well. Then you get benched, you become the starter again, you miss an entire season. I mean a lot of things happened.

“But through all of that, I still tried to work as hard as I could. I still tried to better myself. I still tried to motivate my teammates and make the guys around me better. Nothing has changed with me, except that I learned that I can make it through anything. I’m battle tested.”

Sanchez stressed that he never doubted his recovery from the torn labrum, suffered in the fourth quarter of the Jets’ third 2013 preseason game, against the New York Giants, behind a backup offensive line. It was a situation in which Sanchez shouldn’t have been in the game at all.

The preseason had been cleansing for Sanchez. He’s not calling this a rebirth, but an affirmation that he’s still a viable option for any NFL team. He’s more relaxed.

If you saw him Sunday against Houston, you couldn’t miss the smile. It’s been constant throughout training camp and into the regular season.

Sanchez is playing football again. He’s sure, and knows what’s ahead.

“Missing a whole season, I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy,” Sanchez said. “You learn a lot about yourself in situations like that. During rehab, I got to spend a ton of time with people I was already close to and became closer. It was a great experience. I got to spend a ton of time with my family. I feel healthy and why not throw it the best I can. I do feel healthy. You put in the work and the dedication, it is a rewarding experience. I am having fun again.

“My shoulder feels great and that has a lot to do with it. I have great confidence and great zip on the ball, so I don’t really second guess anything. I just go out and play. There is also a lot that’s going into this [success] around me. The offensive line is blocking well, Jordan Matthews comes alive the other night.”

Sanchez loves Kelly’s system. It affords to let him “cut it loose.”

“It’s [Kelly] and his team around him,” Sanchez emphasized. “You see a great coach [Kelly], and they have a great team, as in players, but a great team of coaches around them. It’s coach [Pat] Shurmur, it’s coach [Bill] Musgrave, all those guys. It’s a testament to their work ethic, too. A lot of people are [invested] in this, from my family, to everyone that worked with me during rehab, to the Eagles that showed confidence in signing me, and these guys I have around me.”

 

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