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Chip Kelly, Mark Sanchez together at last
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Chip Kelly had his eye on Mark Sanchez since Sanchez was in high school. In a way. It was more like he was looking at Sanchez out of the corner of his eye. Watching Sanchez back then had more to do with Sanchez’s proximity to another player than it did with Kelly deluding himself into thinking he had a real shot to recruit the quarterback.

Sanchez went to Mission Viejo High School in California, one of the premiere football factories in the land. He was designated for big things from an early age. The top college programs in the country wanted him. That he ended up going to USC wasn’t a surprise. It was the obvious next step.

At the time, Kelly was still a coach at the University of New Hampshire. Getting someone of Sanchez’s ability and profile to play at a tiny New England school -- convincing him to leave Los Angeles behind and trade sunshine and palm trees for snow and frigid temperatures -- was an impossible dream. Instead, Kelly recruited the quarterback who followed Sanchez, a guy named R.J. Toman. He was a lesser prospect, but a good fit for New Hampshire. That’s how Kelly first met Sanchez, by courting his understudy.

“I’ve known Mark since high school. … I’ve known Mark for a long time,” Kelly said.

He’s watched Sanchez closely, followed the progression and regression. Sanchez threw 34 touchdowns in his final year at USC (second-most in Trojans history), then used that performance to catapult him to the top of the NFL draft. When Sam Bradford, Tim Tebow, Colt McCoy and other highly touted quarterbacks stayed in college, Sanchez ended up as the fifth overall pick -- and the second quarterback taken -- in the 2009 draft. Sanchez said he remembered Kelly’s name from when he was recruiting Toman and followed Kelly as “things blew up there at Oregon.”

“When Coach Kelly called during free agency, I thought this could be a good spot,” Sanchez said. “If I get a chance to play, you know, worst-case scenario, I’ll get preseason film and I’ll have a ton of weapons around me. I’ll be 100 percent as a free agent with some film. If Nick [Foles] is kicking butt all year like he did last year, like we anticipate, then maybe we get up on a couple of teams and I get in late in the game and then there’s even more film. So it will be better than where I was."

Sanchez didn’t have a great rookie year in terms of stats -- 2,444 yards, 12 touchdowns against 20 interceptions -- but he helped the Jets reach just their third AFC Championship in franchise history. He was also named to the All-Rookie team. The next season, Sanchez’s numbers improved (3,291 yards, 17 touchdowns and 13 interceptions), and he and the Jets returned to the AFC Championship for a second consecutive year. His future looked bright. Until it didn’t.

The Jets, to the surprise of no one, were a dysfunctional organization. They sent mixed signals that mangled any semblance of team chemistry. In 2011, they named Sanchez a team captain. In 2012, they signed him to a three-year extension that included $20.5 million in guaranteed money. Then they inexplicably traded for Tebow. Whatever your evaluation of Sanchez’s abilities -- I remain skeptical -- he is inarguably and objectively a better professional quarterback than Tebow. That much is obvious. Or at least it is and was obvious to everyone but the Jets, who essentially dissolved the Sanchez union the minute they batted the organization’s eyes at Tebow.

In 2012, Sanchez played 15 games, but his completion percentage dipped to 54.3 (down from 56.7 the previous year). He managed to throw for only 2,883 yards, which was the fewest since his rookie season. He had 13 touchdowns and 18 interceptions, which was the most-lopsided ratio since his rookie season. Whatever growth Sanchez showed in the two years before 2012 was completely arrested that season. It didn’t help, of course, that the Jets changed offensive coordinators almost as frequently as Imelda Marcos once changed shoes.

“For him, I think he had three coordinators when he was with the Jets,” Kelly said. “From [Brian Schottenheimer] to [Tony] Sparano to Marty [Mornhinweg].”

When it looked like matters couldn’t deteriorate and further, Sanchez underwent shoulder surgery and missed all of last season. That was it for him in New York. The Jets pushed him overboard during the offseason and he eventually washed up here.

“It was just an empty feeling, career-wise,” Sanchez said about suffering his shoulder injury.

Early in OTAs and minicamp, Sanchez admitted that he wasn’t healthy and that the Eagles had him on a “pitch count,” limiting him to somewhere between 60 and 80 throws per day. After Monday’s public practice at Lincoln Financial Field, he said he's fully recovered, feels great, and the ball is “jumping out of his hand.” No more pitch count -- which doesn’t mean he isn’t without challenges. As Kelly mentioned, he’s on his fourth offensive coordinator in six seasons (or five if you delete last year when he didn’t play).

“Changing coordinators, like you know, it’s difficult on everybody, not just the quarterback,” Sanchez said. “It’s like learning a new language. At the end of the day, you feel like everybody has maybe not the same play but something very similar. … [The coaches] know where I’ve come from. So they can say, ‘Hey, this route, we call it this, similar to what you used to know as blank.’ So that kind of puts a picture in my head of what it’s supposed to look like.”

It will be interesting to see Sanchez operate in Kelly’s system. Sanchez is a 55 percent passer for his career. In 62 starts, he’s thrown 69 interceptions. And in his last full season, he had a 66.9 QB rating, which was next-to-last in the NFL out of 32 starters.

“Coming into here, learning his fourth system, he picked things up very quickly,” Kelly said. “Again, like I said with some other guys, he’s really been sharp in the last two days. He really came on toward the end of the spring. I’ve been really, really impressed with him as a teammate. I think the guys, the locker room would tell you that -- what a great person Mark is and how he’s fit into our group. As I’ve said before, you need to have a couple of quarterbacks in this league, because very rarely does your No. 1 make it through the season.”