FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Konrad Reuland pulled Mark Sanchez aside a few days ago and told him to remember the good times they had growing up as kids.
Whether it was on the football field or basketball court in southern California, the childhood buddies were always laughing. Reuland urged his New York Jets teammate to think about the way it used to be -- before the big contracts, hefty expectations and harsh critics.
"We just kind of focused on keeping things light, you know, keeping things loose but also focused," Reuland said Thursday. "You have to remember to have fun out here. Granted, it's a very serious business and there's a lot of money being thrown around every which way and all that, but when it comes down to it, if you're not having fun, there's no reason to play this game. It's too stressful of a job and there's too much pressure to be miserable.
"To be miserable on top of everything, it just doesn't make sense."
The Jets' backup tight end has played with and against Sanchez since they were kids, so if anyone knows how the beleaguered quarterback is handling things, it would be Reuland.
He was there when Sanchez was making his mark at Mission Viejo High School and developing into a big-time college recruit. The two went separate ways as Sanchez headed to Southern California, and Reuland to Notre Dame for two years and then to Stanford -- but they never lost touch. Reuland watched from afar as Sanchez helped lead the Jets to consecutive AFC title games in his first two NFL seasons, then saw him struggle mightily last year.
They became teammates again in the off-season as Reuland was claimed off waivers from San Francisco, giving Sanchez a friendly sounding board as he goes through perhaps the toughest stretch of his entire athletic career.
"Everybody wants to have some fame and fortune, but to me, it's like you always have to be on your best behaviour," Reuland said. "And, let's be honest, we're all human. That doesn't just pertain to Mark, but in general. We all make mistakes and have errors in judgment, but being under the microscope, I will never know what it's like to be Mark, in terms of that."
Sanchez was benched for the first time in his career last Sunday against Arizona, forced to stand on the sideline while the crowd cheered Greg McElroy, who led New York to the only touchdown in a 7-6 victory. Coach Rex Ryan took a couple days to consider all his options and then decided late Tuesday night that he was sticking with Sanchez as his starter.
At least for the team's game at Jacksonville on Sunday.
Beyond that, that's all in Sanchez's hands.
"In terms of what's going on with Mark, I think I would be lying if I said it wasn't important for him to finish the year strong," Reuland said. "That was said by Rex, that he's going to be held to the same standards as everybody else. I don't really have too many doubts that Mark's going to rise to the occasion. I'm pretty sure about that. It's been an unfortunate past couple of games for him. He's going to bounce back."
That's precisely what Ryan is banking on.
Sanchez likely has a four-game redemption period to prove that he can still be the franchise quarterback -- or show the Jets that they need to look elsewhere next season. With mostly mediocre opposing defences left on the schedule, Sanchez would appear primed to step up.
"We'll see on Sunday," Sanchez said Wednesday. "I think I'm poised and ready to play a good game."
If he doesn't, it could cost him his job and status as the face of the franchise. Ryan made the bold choice to stick with Sanchez, and he disagrees that his own future could hinge on how Sanchez responds.
"Obviously, we need to win," Ryan said. "This is a big decision, and in determining wins and losses is the play of your quarterback a lot of times. But, no, I don't feel that my future's tied in with how we do things."
Ryan chose Sanchez over McElroy, who quickly became a fan favourite, and Tim Tebow, still dealing with two broken ribs. Some fans and media insisted the decision was largely based on the Jets owing Sanchez $8.25 million in guaranteed money next year -- a notion Ryan flatly denied.
The fact is, Sanchez will likely be in New York for at least another season. Whether that's as the starter or as a highly paid backup will depend on what he does in the last stretch of the regular season.
Jacksonville's defence is ranked 31st, Tennessee is 27th, while San Diego is ninth -- but its pass defence is 21st. Buffalo, the Jets' final opponent, is ranked 24th in overall defence. While some might say whether he does well against inferior defences won't prove much, it would at least be a step in the right direction.
"We feel like, obviously, Mark gives us the best chance to move forward here," offensive co-ordinator Tony Sparano said. "I think, first of all, Mark has a lot of pride in his work and has an unbelievable passion for this game, and a tremendous work ethic. You put all those things together, it's a good combination."
But, the numbers are troubling. Since the team's bye last month, Sanchez has two touchdowns, five interceptions and two lost fumbles in four games. He has also been sacked 11 times. For the season, he has thrown 12 touchdown passes and 13 interceptions, and lost five fumbles.
"For the guys who have been here, they know that in the toughest circumstances, I play my best," Sanchez said. "You never want it to come to this point, but we're here. ... I'm disappointed in myself, but I don't want to let coach Sparano down. He doesn't show up here at 4 o'clock in the morning and stay here and not see his family and do all the stuff he does for me to go out and throw the ball to the other team.
"That has to be disheartening. That's the part that really bothers you. That's why you want to fix it."