It was the kind of fairytale season that most rookie quarterbacks can only dream of, a reminder that where you land in the draft can mean everything.
Fox Sports NFL analyst Mark Sanchez recalled for The Post his exhilarating magic carpet ride as the Jets’ Sanchise that took him to within 30 minutes of Super Bowl 44, with a win-now team that would have been the envy of the likes of Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson.
“Who are they looking to in the locker room that’s like, ‘I know what it looks like. … I’ve been on a championship run. I’ve been to the playoffs?’ ” Sanchez told The Post. Referring to Wilson, Sanchez added: “He’s not staring at Alan Faneca and Bart Scott and some of these guys who were on really good teams before they got to the Jets, who can show him what that looks like … who can explain, who can relate, who can take coaching from coaches and then explain it peer-to-peer and player-to-player, and that really resonates.”
He was a 22-year-old kid out of USC with only 16 starts when Jets GM Mike Tannenbaum traded up for him and rookie head coach Rex Ryan handed him the ball and the season — a roller-coaster season that saw Sanchez beat Tom Brady at a deafening Giants Stadium in Week 2, throw five interceptions against the Bills, wear a color-coded wristband in an effort to temper his ball-security recklessness, and suffer what seemed like a devastating loss at home to the Falcons to fall to 7-7.
“Rex was just irate after the game,” Sanchez said. “Rex told us we were done. Like our season’s over.”
It wasn’t over. The Jets would beat the previously unbeaten Colts in Indianapolis when head coach Jim Caldwell yanked Peyton Manning with a five-point lead with 5:36 left in the third quarter for overmatched Curtis Painter. Then they just had to beat the Bengals at home in the regular-season finale.
“Win and we’re in and we’ll go right back to Cincinnati the next week,” Sanchez said.
They won 37-0 on a memorable Sunday night.
“Not only did we win, it was the last game in the old Giants Stadium,” Sanchez said. “It was freezing. I remember I had to change cleats to like my little rubber-bottom cleats because the plastic ones were frozen and my feet were so cold.
“And then we were the team that nobody wanted to play.”
The Ground & Pound team.
“And I didn’t have to do much,” Sanchez said.
Backed by an ornery defense that honored Ryan’s vow: “If you take a swipe at one of ours, we’ll take two swipes at one of yours.”
They were on to Cincinnati.
“[Bengals quarterback] Carson Palmer was my idol growing up, I was his ballboy when he was in high school,” Sanchez said. “We had a plan, and it was already hard enough not to watch him while we’re on the bench like supposed to be going through the pictures. [Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer] has to keep reminding me like, ‘Stop watching their offense.’ ”
In the regular season, Sanchez had thrown 12 touchdowns with 20 interceptions with a 53.85 completion percentage. He played his best in the 2009 playoffs (4 TDs, 2 INTs with a 60.29 completion percentage). The Chargers were next.
“I heard the announcer do the ‘Testing 1, 2, 3 testing,’ on the loudspeaker,” Sanchez said. “And it was the same voice from the Coliseum, it’s the same guy who does USC games and San Diego Charger games at the time, and I was like, ‘Ohmigod.’ If that’s not just an omen from heaven, we got this.’ ”
The Jets led 17-14 and iced the upset when Thomas Jones converted a fourth-and-1 from the Chargers’ 29.
“I just remember the 40 Blast call,” Sanchez said. “Everybody in the stadium knew, their team, our team, everybody on TV knew what we were gonna do, and we still lined up and those guys moved ’em out of the way, and Thomas Jones ran for the first down and that was it. That was pretty special. That’s like when we confirmed like, ‘Yeah, we’re like a straight-up bully.’ ”
Now only Peyton Manning stood between Sanchez and the Jets and the Super Bowl.
“Part of me was like, ‘We did it already, earlier in the year,’ ” he said. “So it gave me a little confidence.”
The Jets led 14-6 after Sanchez hit TE Dustin Keller for a 9-yard TD pass at a stunned Lucas Oil Stadium.
“I just remember laying on the ground listening to the crowd, and if it was like a low roar, I knew we scored because we’re on the road,” Sanchez said. “If it was a loud roar, I knew I had to pop up fast because it probably got intercepted. So I just remember laying on the ground and it feels like an eternity, and it’s really only a couple of seconds, right? But you hear the low roar, and I see the guys around me kinda jump, and I was like ‘Ohhh yeah!’ ”
A last-minute Manning TD pass before intermission drew the Colts to within 17-13.
“We walked in at halftime, I was like ‘Ohmigod, we’re going to the Super Bowl!’ ” Sanchez said.
Ryan would hire Colts OC Tom Moore in 2011 as a consultant. Sanchez relates a conversation between the two.
“Rex is like, ‘Man, I just can’t believe the way you guys changed up your stripes in that second half, it was like you were running a completely different offense.’ ” Sanchez said. “ ‘I had you guys dialed, we had free runners, his eyes were all over the place, we had him.’ Tom Moore goes, ‘Well, I didn’t call any damn plays in that second half, that was all No. 18.’ ”
The heartbreaking final was Colts 30, Jets 17.
“You’re so proud of what you’ve done,” Sanchez said, “but you’re so just …. crushed, right? ’Cause you were there. Like 30 minutes ago you were there.”
Asked how Wilson would have fared on the 2009 Jets, Sanchez said, “Any quarterback on a team like that would have been fine.”
It’s on GM Joe Douglas to build Wilson a team like that