In July, as he does every July, Mark Sanchez went home.
He flew back to the West Coast to spend a few days at Camp Quarterback, a passing clinic run by Bob Johnson, Sanchez's old coach at Mission Viejo High School in Southern California, and Bob's son Bret.
The two Johnsons have tutored Sanchez for 15 years, molding him from a prep superstar to the Rose Bowl's offensive MVP at Southern Cal, through his six years in the NFL, and they know his skills and tendencies so well that they can pick up on even the slightest change, the subtlest fresh nuance, in his timing, his footwork, his release of the football.
At the time, Sanchez was nine months' removed from surgery to repair a torn labrum (cartilage) in his right shoulder - an injury that had caused him to miss the 2013 season and that had effectively ended his career with the New York Jets. He had completed his rehabilitation, and after the Jets released him in October and he signed with the Eagles in March to back up Nick Foles, he had participated in the team's organized team activities and minicamps. But it wasn't until he was back at Camp Quarterback, in that setting that felt like home, that he knew he'd recovered fully from the surgery - and then some.
"I really let one go, and I was feeling good, and the next day, I felt even better," Sanchez said Sunday, after the Eagles finished practicing at Franklin Field. "I just looked up at Coach, 'I feel good, man. I'm back.' He said, 'Whoa.' "
Sanchez erased whatever doubts might have remained about his health and his recovery Friday night in the Eagles' preseason-opening game, a 34-28 loss to the Bears in Chicago. He completed seven of his 10 passes (for 79 yards) and made throws even he admitted he probably couldn't have made over his final three seasons with the Jets. Those throws included a gorgeous, seam-route pass that rookie wide receiver Jordan Matthews dropped 30 yards downfield and a Hail Mary that traveled close to 70 yards in the air.
"That was awesome," he said. "It [stinks] that we lost. That was no fun. But it was just good to be back. There's no more pitch count anymore. I can just let it rip."
After Sanchez led the Jets to back-to-back AFC championship games in his first two NFL seasons, his career in New York had come to be defined by his most spectacular failures - his NFL-high 52 turnovers over the 2011 and 2012 seasons, his "butt fumble" on Thanksgiving 2012 against the Patriots, the Jets' 6-12 record over his final 18 starts. But he revealed Sunday that there may have been a mitigating factor in his regression.
On Dec. 19, 2010, late in his second season with the Jets, Sanchez tore his right labrum during a victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers. After that season, Sanchez told reporters the "swelling and bruising" that had developed in his shoulder didn't require surgery. They would heal with time, through exercise and rehabilitation, and he would return to full strength. Except he never did.
"It was just constant, something you don't want to have to deal with," he said. "But you don't want to get surgery unless you need it."
It wasn't until Sanchez exacerbated the original injury and tore the labrum further - after Jets coach Rex Ryan inserted him into the fourth quarter of a preseason game last year against the Giants - that doctors could, in Sanchez's words, "fix all of it." In a June 2011 phone interview, Bret Johnson described Sanchez as being "in the top 3-4 in the league in terms of his throwing motion and mechanics. His footwork in the pocket is unbelievable." But Sanchez said Sunday that over the two years he played after the initial tear, he unconsciously changed his throwing motion to compensate, or perhaps overcompensate, for the discomfort in his shoulder.
"It's natural," he said. "You get turf toe, you're going to run a little different. You sprain your ankle, you're going to run a little different. It's just the way it goes. It didn't help - that's for sure."
Foles is ensconced as the Eagles' starter, but to anyone who watched Sanchez for any significant length of time while he was with the Jets, his adjustment to and acceptance of Eagles coach Chip Kelly's offense is sure to be a matter of curiosity during practices and the rest of the preseason. In New York, Sanchez often appeared hesitant in the pocket, as if he were deciding which one of the Jets' skill-position players he should satisfy on a particular play. And there were plenty he had to keep happy: Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards, LaDainian Tomlinson, Dustin Keller.
The Eagles' system is more democratic, relying on a quarterback's using his instincts within a structure that Kelly has created.
"You get the ball out as fast as you can," Sanchez said. "You don't even look at the numbers on guys. You're not trying to get somebody the ball. The offense takes care of itself."
It did Friday. Mark Sanchez led the Eagles on two touchdown drives, and he threw the football as if he hadn't thrown it in a long time. He felt like he was back, and he felt like he was home.