For better or worse, Sam Darnold will carry the New York Jets in 2020.
The New York Jets have ushered in the post-Jamal Adams era. Rather than work with one of the best defensive backs in the game, Joe Douglas and Adam Gase flipped him to the Seattle Seahawks for a sweet haul of draft picks.
That trade begins a pivotal year for the direction of this franchise, as both Gase and quarterback Sam Darnold are on thin ice as the former USC star enters his third season. Now that he has a somewhat decent offensive line around him and the Adams noise has been silenced, all eyes will be on Darnold as he tries to make a leap despite the lack of a great infrastructure around him.
Sam Darnold can head down one of three paths, and two of them aren’t great.
Given how the Jets organization is so toxic from the top down that not even Douglas can reverse it by himself, fans shouldn’t just assume Darnold will get the right pieces around him in the immediate future. If (when) the Jets fail to support him properly, one of three things can happen.
In the worst-case scenario, he could flounder without proper support and earn himself some prime real-estate in the Jets’ quarterback graveyard, perhaps next to Mark Sanchez, Browning Nagle, Kellen Clemens and the litany of other names that led this franchise to some of its worst seasons. Given the raw arm talent and athleticism, this likely won’t happen unless’ Gase’s bad tendencies overshadow that like a malignant tumor.
The second possibility, the best-case scenario, is that Darnold becomes a superstar on raw talent alone and is able to overcome the wave of dysfunction hurled at him on a daily basis. This will be a new feeling for Jets fans, as even the great Joe Namath had a Hall of Fame coach, wide receiver and left tackle in Weeb Ewbank, Don Maynard and Winston Hill. Given how Darnold has a propensity for throwing into double coverage and will turn the ball over frequently, even as compared to other young quarterbacks, this likely won’t happen, especially with Gase as the coach.
Sam Darnold could land the Jets in the dreaded QB doldrums.
The final possibility, which is the most likely, is that Darnold stays in that dreaded quarterback middle ground, never slipping into either engagingly good or amusingly bad. Jets signal-callers like Ken O’Brien and Richard Todd found themselves here, and their constant okay play was never good enough for the Jets to emerge as contenders over a long period of time but never bad enough to kick off a rebuild.
While Todd found some success, even leading the Jets to the AFC Championship game before losing in the “Mud Bowl,” his propensity for throwing interceptions was never coached out of him and he eventually slinked out of New York in disgrace. While O’Brien made two Pro Bowls and had the lowest interception percentage in the league three times in a four-year span, poor coaching and line play never let him reach the heights some of his 1983 Draft compatriots did.
Sam Darnold needs to make the leap next season to avoid becoming another bust.
Darnold completed 61.7 percent of his passes while throwing 19 touchdowns against 13 picks in his second season. Those stats, and his 7-6 record as a starter, are a bit misleading. Against one of the easiest schedules in the league, Darnold beat three teams with a winning record last year. One of them was the Pittsburgh Steelers in a game in which they started Devlin Hodges, and one was the Bills in Week 17 after they rested their starters. He only managed 13 points in that win over Buffalo.
Six of his touchdowns came in a two-week span against lowly Washington and a tomato can Raiders defense. Against teams with a winning record, he managed just seven touchdowns and seven interceptions. Yes, he lacked a serviceable offensive line and he’s coached by Gase, a hack who has convinced himself and others that he is Bill Walsh, but if the Jets get three straight years of average or below-average production, the organization has to at least question if he’s the guy.
The post-Namath Jets have been a wasteland where promising quarterbacks go to die. Even players like Todd, who showed flashed, and O’Brien, who made multiple Pro Bowls, couldn’t escape the mediocrity and poor decision-making that has become emblematic of this franchise.
If Darnold doesn’t start showing that he can be a star this season, cutting bait with him and starting a proper rebuild might be the best option, as Jets fans didn’t sign up for another decade of average quarterback play. 2020 will be the year where the true Darnold finally reveals himself, and the fact that even the most analytically-minded Jets fans have no idea if he’s a franchise guy or if he’s improving significantly has to scare the Gang Green faithful.
The one thing that could change all of this is Douglas hitting on all of these picks and building the Jets into a team that can success irrespective of Darnold. Even with Douglas’ reputation, that’s a tall order.