Much is being made of 2012 being Mark Sanchez's fourth season, with the New York Jets quarterback having to endure constant comparisons to the living ghosts of Jet legend Joe Namath and his New York Giants counterpart Eli Manning, both of whom won Super Bowls in their fourth seasons. Sanchez also has to contend with Tim Tebow breathing down his neck, but if he continues to perform like he did in the Week 1 48-28 victory over the Buffalo Bills (19-for-27, 266 yards, three touchdowns, one interception, 123.4 rating), he will no doubt cast any quarterback controversy aside. Looking back at Jets history, there have really only been four other homegrown quarterbacks besides Sanchez who even had a chance at a fourth season with the team: Namath, Richard Todd, Ken O'Brien and Chad Pennington. Here's how each did in their fourth year, to see what Sanchez has to live up to.
Namath was the first overall pick in the 1965 AFL draft (he was also chosen by the NFL's St. Louis Cardinals), and he won the Rookie of the Year award after appearing in 13 games and starting nine. He led the AFL in yards and interceptions in his second and third seasons. And in his storied fourth year, leading the Jets to their only Super Bowl victory, he pulled back the reins on the team's passing attack and utilized the running game more, with the team gaining 1,608 rushing yards that year, compared to 1,307 from the previous season. He had a pair of five-interception games in the team's first two losses, which raised some red flags that maybe he shouldn't be taking so many chances in the air. His 17 total interceptions were skewed by those two games, but down from the previous season's 28. His 15 touchdown passes were 11 fewer than '67, but the team rushed for five more TDs in '68 than the season before. Namath threw for 3,147 yards, with a 49.2 completion percentage and had a 72.1 passer rating. But more important than any of those numbers, of course, was the Super Bowl victory.
Namath's successor, Todd (taken sixth overall in the '76 draft), had to spend his whole career being compared to Broadway Joe. They both came out of Alabama and overlapped for one season, with Todd playing in 13 games and starting six. In his fourth season, in 1979, Todd started 15 games (Matt Robinson was behind center in the other), tossed 16 touchdown passes, with 22 picks, threw for 2,660 yards, had a 52.2 completion percentage and a 66.6 passer rating. The Jets went 8-8. The following season, he led the league in interceptions, with 30, and it wasn't until his sixth and seventh seasons where he strung two strong years together, leading the Jets to the playoffs both times while throwing more touchdown passes than interceptions the only seasons of his career.
O'Brien was the next Jet quarterback to reach season four. He was infamously chosen ahead of Dan Marino in the first round of the '83 draft (24th overall). O'Brien didn't play at all in his rookie year, and he became the full-time starter in his third year with the team, leading the Jets to the playoffs and making the first of two Pro Bowls, while topping the league in passer rating (96.2). He was outstanding again in his fourth year, highlighted by the 51-45 overtime win over the Miami Dolphins, when he outdueled Marino, and threw four touchdown passes to Wesley Walker. The two QBs set a single-game passing-yards record, with O'Brien throwing for 479 yards and Marino 448. O'Brien tossed 25 touchdown passes that season, with 20 interceptions, threw for 3,690 yards, had a 62.2 completion percentage and an 85.8 passer rating. The Jets went 10-6, finishing in second place in the AFC East, and made it to the second round of the playoffs, where they lost to the Cleveland Browns in the Mark Gastineau "roughing-the-passer" game.
The last quarterback to get that far before Sanchez was Pennington. Another first-round pick (18th overall in the 2000 draft), Pennington only got into three games in his first two years before becoming the starter in his third season, when he led the league in completion percentage (68.9%) and passer rating (104.2). In his fourth season, the injury-prone Pennington started nine games, tossed 13 touchdown passes, with 12 interceptions, threw for 2,139 yards, completed 63.6 percent of his passes and had a QB rating of 82.9. The Jets finished in third place, with a 6-10 record.
Statistically, O'Brien was the best of the bunch in their fourth seasons, while Namath had the most team success (Namath also called his own plays, so he had a little more burden thrust upon him than the others). Sanchez will hope to fare better than Todd and Pennington, but the real goal at this point is to finish the way Namath did -- on top of the football world.