At this time, approximately three years ago, Jets fans were leading the Baker Mayfield hype train on full-throttle. Fans, even those in league circles fell in love with the Oklahoma signal-caller’s passion and underdog aura. Others believed the large-framed Josh Allen out of Wyoming should be the pick due to his rocket of an arm that could send the Air Force into a scramble. Some even believed that the intelligent pick was UCLA’s Josh Rosen, a passer many viewed as the most pro-ready of the top quarterbacks due to his experience and confidence throwing inside the pocket. Louisville’s Lamar Jackson was liked for the opposite, his abilities as a passer and his game-changing speed as a runner caught the eyes of some who saw these tools as lethal.
The consensus at the time was that USC quarterback Sam Darnold, a raw 20-year-old, a talented quarterback with new-age off-platform throwing ability and a few turnover reservations would be the first overall selection in the 2018 NFL Draft by the Cleveland Browns. It wasn’t until the day of April 26th that Mayfield to Cleveland began picking up steam and it wasn’t until that night when the Browns submitted the draft card and Commissioner Roger Goodell announced the pick that the world realized Darnold would fall to the third overall pick and into the hands of the biggest market in sports.
Sam Darnold was welcomed to New York minutes after Saquon Barkley–taken by the Giants minutes before at the second overall pick– and the honeymoon period ensued. He quickly attracted nicknames such as Broadway Sam and Sammy Savior. A team and a fanbase starving for a franchise quarterback had hope.
It really wasn’t until September of 2020 that this honeymoon period concluded.
His rookie year began at training camp in August after a miniature hold-out when negotiating his rookie contract; $30.25 million over four years with $20 million guaranteed at signing, they agreed on. After dueling with newly signed Teddy Bridgewater and Josh McCown, who would go on to prove himself as Darnold’s biggest advocate, in the preseason of 2018, then head coach Todd Bowles named Darnold the week one starter and Bridgewater was sent on his way to New Orleans. Darnold, at 21 years and 91 days old, nudged previous record holder Drew Bledsoe out of the way and became the youngest quarterback to start a season-opening matchup dating back to the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.
He showed promise during his rookie season. Over 13 games, Darnold completed 57.7% of his passes and threw 17 touchdowns with 16 turnovers, also sacked 30 times. It doesn’t sound good, but you had to watch him when he played as the season concluded. The flashes of talent were there–he could make the right reads and make the right throws, he could even sit in a pocket and maneuver it–but he often made mechanical mistakes as well as simple rookie mistakes. This was seen as something that could be fixed by good coaching and potentially develop Sam to his fullest potential.
The Jets fired head coach Todd Bowles and his staff including offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates after the season. New York was once again testing the waters of free-agent coaches.
General manager Mike Maccagnan and Owner Christopher Johnson set out to find a coach; the right coach for their young hopeful savior. They touched base with Todd Monken. They spoke to Matt Rhule. They met with Kliff Kingsbury.
The night of January ninth, 2019, they left with Adam Gase. A piece of the Sam Darnold era– the raw quarterback who many believed had the potential to be great with a good coach–died that night.
Mike Maccagnan spent big on running back Le’Veon Bell in free agency and Darnold was organizing offseason workouts with his teammates. At the time, many anticipated a breakout year.
In the week following the Jets season-opening 17-16 loss to the Buffalo Bills at home, head coach Adam Gase announced to reporters that “14 has mono and will be out for this game.” Darnold would return in October against the Dallas Cowboys in a week six home matchup, a game where Darnold threw for 338 yards and two touchdowns. Fans once again fell in love with Darnold, who completed his first pass of the game–a 17-yard strike to receiver Demaryius Thomas–which had been astray from the offense for the four weeks prior where quarterback Luke Falk and the Jets air attack accounted for zero touchdowns to five turnovers.
Darnold would finish another 13-game season, completing 61.9% of his throws and tossing 19 touchdowns while turning the ball over 19 times and getting sacked 33 times. His talent was still very clear; the problem was, so were his weaknesses. Many viewed these struggles as fixable through age and experience; what they didn’t realize, unfortunately, was that he was a ticking time bomb.
Narrator: They were wrong.
Darnold, in a season where the Jets offense ranked dead last in most categories, would again miss time, finishing a 12-game season and completing 59.6% of his throws with nine touchdowns and 15 turnovers. He was also sacked 35 times. He amplified bad habits such as his pocket presence and footwork which were both fractured, he learned new bad habits such as losing confidence in his own arm. A three-year player, still just 23 years old, was demonstrating rookie mistakes while developing new weaknesses. Darnold had seemingly regressed up to this point; both he and the organization had a hand in this.
The Jets cleared house by firing Adam Gase and his entire staff following the 2020 season. After a thorough search, Joe Douglas and Christopher Johnson hired Robert Saleh to fill the head coach vacancy, including offensive and defensive coordinators Mike LaFleur and Jeff Ulbrich.
Joe Douglas told reporters confirmed in a press conference in March of 2021 that the Jets were fielding calls on Darnold: “I will answer the call if it’s made.” This was a shift from his stance following the 2019 trade deadline where he told reporters that he believed a franchise quarterback was an “untouchable” player, moments later adding “I think we do,” when asked if the Jets had a franchise quarterback in Sam Darnold.
As many had reported and Douglas had stated, the Jets planned to complete all evaluations of the 2021 quarterback draft class, including Pro Days and virtual meetings. It became clear how noncommittal the Jets were to Darnold.
On April 5th, 2021, Darnold was dealt to the Carolina Panthers in exchange for a sixth-round pick 226 selection in 2021, a 2022 second-round pick, and a 2022 fourth-round pick, effectively ending the once deemed franchise savior’s era in New York.
One thing nobody can take away from Darnold throughout his era in New York is his professionalism and maturity. He was suffocated amid his most important developmental window by Jeremy Bates for a year and Adam Gase for two, yet not once complained or criticized anyone; and the opportunities have certainly presented themselves, as proven in receiver Quincy Enunwa’s quote back in December of 2018, “Well I have a job right now, so as much as I’d love to say what my opinion of that is, I’d rather just keep that to myself.”
The consensus is that despite poor coaching and poor weapons in 2020, Darnold, adjacent to the team, was making his own mistakes and not performing well enough himself. A scenario where a bottom-of-the-league quarterback finds a new home with a bolstered supporting cast and improves due to the energy around them–similarly to what quarterback Carson Wentz hopes to accomplish with the Indianapolis Colts–is rare, but possible. A scenario where the quarterback continues to regress–like David Carr’s time with the Carolina Panthers after being beaten down in Houston–is also possible. The hope for Darnold is to prove himself and the Panthers right: that all he needed was a supporting cast.
Darnold has a unique opportunity at hand. Not only does he reunite with his old partner-in-crime Robby Anderson, but he also pairs with head coach Matt Rhule–who was a hot name in the Jets 2019 head coach search and even reportedly spoke with Darnold during that search–and ascending offensive coordinator Joe Brady. Darnold will also be surrounded by receivers D.J. Moore and David Moore as well as all-pro running back Christian McCaffrey. He no longer has excuses, he now has what many have been banging the table for since his rookie days: a strong supporting cast. The opportunity to prove many wrong is on the table for Darnold’s taking.
New York’s perspective
While Adam Gase and Jeremy Bates deservingly take much of the blame for his success up to this point, Darnold himself has blood on his hands as well. The undeniable talent is still present, but so are both old and new bad habits and tendencies that have appeared in his game. It’s a very real possibility that the current state of the quarterback is permanently fractured and potentially irreversible; that’s a risk that a rebuilding team on the brink of ascending simply cannot risk.
Joe Douglas told reporters in a zoom meeting on Tuesday, “As we said when the season ended, we were going to be in evaluation mode. Based on those evaluations, we’re comfortable with the direction.” Douglas went on to say that if the Jets weren’t picking as high in the draft as they are, that “We’d fully be comfortable keeping Sam [Darnold].”
The Jets will ultimately look to reset and retry the quarterback project in April with a new signal-caller and a new coaching staff – the way it should have been done back in 2018. A chance to develop a clean-slate prospect and grow with a rookie coaching staff. As opposed to paying Darnold’s fifth-year option, which according to multiple reports Carolina will be picking up for a cost around $19 million in 2022, New York will pen in a new amateur four-year contract.
This will be the first time that a team will draft two quarterbacks with a top-three pick over the span of four years, according to ESPN Stats and Info. The Jets received pick 226 in the upcoming NFL Draft along with second and fourth-round picks in next year’s draft from the Panthers in return for Darnold, adding to a total of 21 picks in the next two years–ten in the first three rounds–which may become more knowing Joe Douglas and his ability to play with picks.
Carolina is trading for Darnold with the hopes that his poor play and amateur habits are sprains rather than fractures. A strong supporting cast may be just what Darnold needs. As stated, the opportunity is there; there will be no more excuses. The Panthers are trusting their coaching staff and offensive talent to amplify the good in Darnold’s game and tune out the bad; this is proven by sending three picks–the highest a second-rounder in 2022–to New York in return for Darnold. If he arrives as his 2020-self, Carolina is in for trouble. If he comes in as his old 2018-self with replenished confidence and a clean slate, the Panthers may have their quarterback. That is the risk they are taking on Darnold.
A league-wide story to watch over the next couple of years will be how much damage control Carolina can do with a young, scarred quarterback who has yet to complete a full season, complete the 2020 league average 66.4% of his passes in any of his three seasons, has declined in about every passing category since entering the league, and coming off his worst statistical season with 9 touchdowns and 15 turnovers.