By GREG BISHOP
The New York Times
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- The maturation of Mark Sanchez is evident in his statistics, decisions and demeanor. The most obvious sign of growth, however, is on his face.
Sanchez stopped shaving about a month ago, after another multi-interception debacle continued his tumultuous rookie season with the Jets. But his play since that Dec. 20 game against Atlanta has transformed as stubble turned to beard, as the Jets won four straight to reach the American Football Conference championship game in Indianapolis on Sunday.
He sees nothing wrong with superstition, with eating at the same restaurants and following the same routine.
"Why change now?" Sanchez said.
On Wednesday, the Jets' locker room seemed divided between pro-beard and anti-beard contingents. Tight end Dustin Keller described Sanchez's facial hair as "terrible" and said Sanchez was aiming for the Bushwick Bill look. Others called the beard patchy, uneven and wooly.
For fullback Tony Richardson, it represented something else: full-grown proof of the smartest, safest, most important month of professional football that Sanchez has played this season.
"He doesn't look like a kid anymore," Richardson said. "He looks like a grown man now. He's not playing like a rookie, either, so more power to the beard."
As Sanchez has risen and fallen between extremes this season, his college coach, Pete Carroll, watched from California. It was Carroll who questioned Sanchez's decision to turn pro one year early, comments that looked misguided during the Jets' 3-0 start and spot on during Sanchez's well-documented struggles.
Sanchez started only 16 games at Southern California. On Sunday, he will start his 18th game as a professional. Carroll, who recently became the Seattle Seahawks' coach, owns only half as many NFL playoff wins as Sanchez, and he has nothing but praise now for him.
"It has been everything he could have wanted," Carroll said. "He had to rebound from the reality of the league. He stood tough. His coaches stood tough with him, to have the chance to get on a roll at the end."
Carroll added: "I couldn't be happier. I couldn't be more proud."
It started when the beard began. After the loss to the Falcons, the fourth game this season in which Sanchez tossed at least three interceptions, running back Thomas Jones pulled him aside.
Jones told Sanchez that he went through the same slumps that Sanchez was experiencing. Both were top-10 draft picks. Both signed lucrative contracts before they played one down. Jones preached patience to Sanchez, noting that his most productive years came in the past two seasons, with his fourth team, over age 30.
"I told him to stay confident in his ability," Jones said. "He thought he had to put the whole team on his shoulders. He needed to play a role."
Few understand those circumstances better than Troy Aikman. Before he became an NFL analyst for Fox, Aikman carved out a Hall of Fame career in Dallas. He called his rookie season, in which the Cowboys finished 1-15 and Aikman went 0-11 as a starter, his worst experience in football.
"I try to forget that ever happened," Aikman said. "It was a miserable time."
Aikman agreed, in part, with Carroll's comments before Sanchez was drafted. Aikman said playing quarterback in the NFL had never been more difficult, because the game moves so quickly and the defenses are more complex.
But Aikman also said that quarterbacks entered the league more prepared now than when he played, from 1989 to 2000. Current college quarterbacks run more pro-style offenses and face more pro-style defenses, and the result, Aikman added, has been a run of successful rookie quarterbacks, starting with Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh and continuing to Sanchez.
That the Jets' offense ranked 20th overall during the regular season, or that Sanchez threw for a combined 282 yards in two playoff games, matters little now. Sanchez is on the cover of Sports Illustrated this week, mouth agape, right fist ready to be thrown in celebration. It is the Jets' first team cover since 1999.
Sanchez understands what rookie quarterbacks have struggled with since football was invented. He plays for a team with the top-ranked defense and rushing attack. Despite being paid like the leading actor, Sanchez serves his team best as a key member of the supporting cast.
"It's just his overall approach," wide receiver Wallace Wright said. "It's totally different. Think back to where he was during training camp, stuttering with the plays. His growth has been amazing."
Next up is another playoff game, another Pro Bowl quarterback, only this time, instead of Carson Palmer or Philip Rivers on the other sideline, it will be Peyton Manning, the elite of the elite. Of the four teams remaining, Sanchez is the only unproven commodity, the biggest question mark.
The Colts drafted Manning and built around him, but the Jets constructed a playoff team and gambled on Sanchez as the final piece. Jets coach Rex Ryan watched first-hand last season as the Ravens advanced this far with another rookie quarterback, Joe Flacco, at the helm. The 2000 Ravens also won the Super Bowl with the journeyman Trent Dilfer at quarterback.
Can Sanchez do the same? Neither Carroll nor Aikman would predict against him.
"This feels right," Sanchez said. "This feels good. It feels like you dream it would feel. The biggest thing is not getting caught up in it."
And, of course, continuing with the beard.