Adam Gase, Sam Darnold, Roger Goodell
Jet X Graphic, Getty Images

To even attempt to understand the hardened Sam Darnold defender is to dive into a world that presents a seriously-flawed internal struggle.

Robby Sabo

Welcome to today. This day. This specific moment in time. The world that often promotes a cultish-like behavior from an overwhelming segment of humanity.

The democrats did something evil? No worries, for republicans are more sinister (insert an imaginary Mr. Charles Montgomery Burns “excellent” GIF), so let’s rationalize and move forward. (And yeah, of course we could reverse the two political parties and have it all come out in an identical fashion, allowing the entire idea of choosing one of two sides to feel incredibly idiotic.)

Your favorite professional sports league just cannot help but ignore any conversation dealing with China? Ah, don’t sweat it. Those who bring up the point have their own unique agenda.

Your favorite football team is ready to move on from their starting quarterback? Let’s name two captains and allow the two sides to materialize virtually.

Today’s culture has yet to be clearly defined, but what’s crystal clear is the way humans have overwhelmingly chosen one of two sides to only stick with that sentiment through thick and thin, silly and serious, intelligent and downright dumb. There’s no room for nuance, additional information or any wavering whatsoever. In fact, today’s social media mindset goes against everything a football coach promotes in his daily life (no wonder there are so few coaches on Twitter).

In reality, it’s the process that’s most important, not the results. How one arrives at a certain destination is far more critical than the destination itself, for it develops a procedural template that can replicate future positive results. But alas, that’s not our current sports media climate.

Nearly any subject could be viewed with this cultish-like behavior in mind. The New York Jets, for instance, are currently in the process of determining which route to take at the quarterback position.

Joe Douglas, Robert Saleh, Mike LaFleur and the rest of the crew will objectively consider the options, while the majority of the fanbase is already separated into two camps:

  1. Pro-Sam Darnold
  2. Anti-Sam Darnold

Are you in the pro-Sam Darnold camp or the anti-Sam Darnold camp? There is no gray area. You can either profess your love for the current Jets quarterback or bash him to high heaven. There is no in-between. Those are the rules.

As silly as this absolutist line of thinking is on paper is how alive and well the idea is in reality. For kicks and screams, construct a Darnold tweet that features a concerning post-snap read from 2020 and watch the reactions flood in. (Not even the antichrist could match your evil doings.)

The struggle within, for the absolutists out there (on both sides of the coin), is as legitimate as anything in Jet land today. But why? Why can’t a level-headed conversation be had instead of bits and pieces of information leading to two camps viciously attacking one another?

It’s simple (sort of). Most of it boils down to hope.

Darnold represents the most recent signal of hope. When things aren’t right—something Jets fans understand pretty damn well—hope is what gets an individual through the day, through the week, through the year, through the damn rebuild … yet again.

Selected third overall in the 2018 NFL draft, the California quarterback was a “can’t miss” prospect.

On the night of April 26, 2018, he stood up, met Roger Goodell at the podium and happily held that No. 1 jersey with both hands. Jets fans around the globe rejoiced in the idea that the messiah had arrived. Suddenly, the hardest part of the rebuild was solved, courtesy of some Mike Maccagnan draft-pick shaking and baking.

It was, for most Jets fans, perfection.

While “generational talent” didn’t appear next to his draft bio, what the kid did in the Rose Bowl against Penn State and Saquon Barkley showcased the tip of the iceberg. The way he fearlessly threw the ball, oftentimes on the run, seemed perfect for today’s more mobile NFL.

A clearly-rebuilding football team, one that hadn’t enjoyed a true franchise quarterback since Joe Namath, the Jets finally got their guy. The only thing left was to put the pieces around the kid.

Three years later … Darnold is no closer to fulfilling that promise.

Letting go is tough.

Nevermind his 22 total 2017 turnovers in a defensive-challenged Pac-12. Nevermind the whispers about his struggling quarterback mind when reading defenses. He was the guy and a celebration was needed.

The ugly stats and numerous instances that feature a confused Darnold pre and post-snap are abundant. There’s really no need to rehash some of the material (as Jet X has covered the subject ad nauseam). The only critical thing to understand is our absolutist nature as a human species in today’s social media age. None of it matters for one simple reason beyond the hope factor: Adam Gase.

The struggle within for the furious Darnold defenders doesn’t deal with the quarterback’s overall talent or production at all. It instead deals with hope and the roadblock that was the head coach. How could any quarterback succeed in a Gase-run offense?

Actually, there’s good reason to believe Darnold can find success at this level. He clearly has the raw traits needed to get it done, and he even put up a respectable rookie season that provided even more hope leading into the Gase era. But despite the fact Darnold’s 2019 numbers were slightly better than his rookie numbers (under Gase), only one of these two men has been the problem the entire time.

That’s rule No. 1 in today’s sports media landscape: Two things can’t be true at the same time. Gase can’t stink as an offensive mind while Darnold stinks when reading defenses. Nevermind the Jets’ historically-awful season, one that set offensive football back a few decades this past season. There can only be one villain in this game.

Readers will surely take in this information and automatically assume I’m an anti-Darnold fella. How dare I say such things about the great hope who followed Christian Hackenberg, Geno Smith, Mark Sanchez and Browning Nagle. The Jets have sought a true franchise quarterback for decades and those who defy Darnold and glutens for more punishment. (Besides, the idea that Darnold, the great hope, is given up on too soon and finds wild success elsewhere is too much to even ponder.)

The Shanahan system, combined with a legitimate offensive line and weapons, is surely the medicine needed to right the ship.


Personally, I think Darnold can experience success in this league. I can envision a near-30-touchdown, 4,000-yard performance in his future at some point.

The problem, as usual, is context. The problem, as always, is a lack of nuance.

Jared Goff threw for 4,688 yards and 32 touchdowns in 2018. It doesn’t mean he’s a “franchise quarterback” in today’s camouflaged NFL. If he is, then so are 20 to 25 other quarterbacks.

Sam Darnold
(Photo by Al Pereira/Getty Images)

Courtesy of the pass-happy rules that discriminate against every defensive player, average and even below-average quarterbacks can enjoy decent statistical seasons from time to time. The numbers are so bloated that nearly every quarterback has that opportunity. We just haven’t fully adjusted to the new numbers.

The real question that needs to be asked is this: Could Darnold’s talents and mind for the game place him among the top several quarterbacks in the 1990s, well before the NFL changed the name of the game to heavily favor the passing game? Could the USC product have thrived alongside the likes of Dan Marino, Jim Kelly, Warren Moon, Steve Young, Troy Aikman and others?

Can he reach an Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes or even Deshaun Watson-type level today? Douglas isn’t looking for a guy who can blow hot and cold over a career, depending on his situation. He’s looking for the next Mahomes, a guy who can elevate an entire organization over the period of many years.

Then, what’s important is this: Will he immediately fetch the 2021 results needed to weather the storm of doubt coming from every direction? The fact he has just one year left on his rookie deal is critical when determining the team’s future at the position. No legitimate general manager would dare pick up his costly fifth-year option, which means if the Jets choose Darnold this offseason, a multi-year deal is required after witnessing just one season of play without Gase.

It’s incredibly risky thanks to the salary cap.

Even if he somewhat succeeds, it could be trouble. What’s a general manager to do if Darnold puts up 24 touchdowns to 14 interceptions while throwing for 3,672 yards in 15 games? Missing on the second contract is what kills front office careers—not the first. At least not anymore.

Back to square one. Do the Jets have a top-10 pick in 2022? Who are the rookie options? Will it fetch as desirable a situation as what Douglas has right now with the No. 2 pick and plenty of options to immediately strike?

The rookie wage scale introduced a decade ago has made drafting the top-10 quarterback a cheat code. Not only can the rest of the roster be more easily built, but the franchise can also easily move on from the kid if he doesn’t work out—courtesy of the much-cheaper contract ($7-$9 million a season over the first four years).

Jets X-Factor Membership

Darnold and a draft option cannot be compared as apples to apples. The hardened Darnold defender thinks of Zach Wilson or Justin Fields as carrying more risk than Darnold. But why? The risk of a struggling quarterback having just one year remaining on an affordable deal versus a kid whose sky-high confidence starts at year No. 1 of four affordable seasons is a landslide victory for the latter.

What the Darnold defenders need to do is explain his poor post-snap reads and lack of understanding leverage in a way that always ties into Gase’s system. Only then can quality back up the point.

What’s most frustrating is that the topic’s minutia is endless but rarely explored. Yet, minutia is exactly what the doctor ordered. And until the minutia is discussed in a nuanced manner, Jets fans will remain divided until the day the decision is made.

Understanding the hardened Sam Darnold defender is pretty easy when today’s social climate is examined. The same can be said for the hardened Sam Darnold hater.

It’s a damn shame, too. Good reasons exist on both sides of the Sam Darnold argument. Unfortunately, very few New York Jets fans would know it.

Everybody’s too busy rabidly fighting for one of two sides without context and nuance.

Welcome to … today, the place where sports media takes must be unwavering in nature.

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Robby Sabo is a co-founder, developer and credentialed New York Jets content creator for Jets X-Factor | Jet X, which includes Sabo's Sessions (in-depth film breakdowns) and Sabo with the Jets. Host: Underdog Jets Podcast with Wayne Chrebet and Sabo Radio. Member: Pro Football Writers of America. Coach: Port Jervis (NY) High School. Washed up strong safety and 400M runner. Founder: Elite Sports NY - ESNY (sold in 2020). SEO: XLM Email: robby.sabo[at]
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2 years ago

Preface: this comment is not meant to be disrespectful. It’s offered mostly tongue-in-cheek, while still being honest. I realize we’re all on the same team here, but this needs to be said.

Unlike most Jet fans, I’m not a professional NFL scout. So, I’ll offer a professional’s enumeration of “100 reasons to believe in New York Jets QB Sam Darnold”, which is brought to you by the self-described “best analytical New York Jets mind in the world”. (In this world, humility doesn’t get you profiled in daily newspapers. The Jets Xfactor crew are obviously well-aware of this fact).

I guess someone at Jets Xfactor needs to sit Mr. Nania down and help him overcome the struggle within that he suffered under last May. Perhaps he saw a quarterback showing skill and improvement, despite being the youngest QB to start in NFL history, working with a bottom third roster, and having arguably the worst offensive coaching staff in the league. Or maybe he hadn’t yet invented the stat that finally uncovered the “truth” about Sam Darnold.

Welcome to right now. This moment. This specific moment, while I sit here, avoiding work, typing the word “w-o-r-d”. In this world, a website and a social media account are all that’s required for amateurs to call themselves professionals. I’m not using amateur to mean “a person who is incompetent or inept at a particular activity”. Clearly the Jets Xfactor gang are smart, engaged, and thoughtful. They’re certainly not humble. A glance at their article titles, arguments and biographies reveals that in spades. It’s this combination, though – smart, but immodestly boastful of a self-appointed status – that exposes the amateurish nature of this site.

In this world new is better. New is better because old is more complicated and less flashy. New is the sugar rush of a young, fresh-faced quarterback. A quarterback that’s not attached to the decade of putrid play the Jets have forced fans to watch. New didn’t avoid drafting for the offensive line; new didn’t have a 38 year old as a featured running back; new didn’t hire the coach. New hasn’t made any mistakes, so we all must love new.

To truly understand the Sam Darnold defender, you have to understand that the defense isn’t exclusively about Sam Darnold. No one is blind to his play in 2020. It was awful. What the Sam Darnold defender is actually defending, is the unassailable truth that teams win Super Bowls, not a single player, no matter how many pro-bowls he’s been to, or how many Boca Raton bowls he’s won. Not even a single position group can win a Super Bowl (though a single position group can lose one, ask Kansas City). Being in a position to draft a quarterback in the first round is not rare. It happens more often than you think. What is exceedingly rare, is to be in a position to trade out of a draft pick, and acquire a potentially franchise altering number of draft picks, all of which can be used build an elite team.

Admittedly, the Jets have more than the normal number of draft picks to use over the next two years. The draft is a tricky little battle, though, and the more ammo you bring to it, the more likely you are to eventually hit the target. The target in this case is a roster that is already riddled with bullet holes. By my conservative count, the Jet’s need no less than 10 new starters, not to mention improved backups and role players. That’s a lot of talent currently missing.

Should the Jets draft a quarterback second overall, they are not merely making a single selection. The choice is not between Sam Darnold and a new QB (be it Zach Wilson or Justin Fields). The choice is between Sam Darnold plus the picks you can get by trading out of two, and a new QB.

Let’s use the RGIII trade as a template. Surely, if Wilson is as great as we’re told he is, then he can garner the same trade package as Robert Griffin. That trade package was three first round picks, and one second round pick. That’s four premium picks, where you would expect to draft game-changing talent. So, to be clear about what Sam Darnold defenders are actually defending, the choice is potentially this: Sam Darnold, plus (likely) two offensive lineman, a wide receiver, and a pass rusher, or Zach Wilson. Do you really, honestly believe Zach Wilson, or any QB in this class not named Trevor Lawrence, is worth all of that? My answer is no. I won’t speak for you. That, though, is the question you have to answer. The level of confidence you would need to have in Zach Wilson to believe he can overcome all that lost talent is staggering, almost enviable. I wish I could be that confident in anything.

To be fair, I’ll admit it’s not impossible that he can overcome all that lost talent, from a team that currently has very little. I’ll also admit that, though I’m not a professional scout, Wilson is clearly a pro, and has an NFL arm. I won’t admit, unlike many Jet fans, that’s he’s the next Patrick Mahomes. I’d like there to be at least one pass against an NFL defense before that comparison is made. Nonetheless, even if he is literally a perfect human clone of Patrick Mahomes, he still, as was evidenced in the Super Bowl, would not be able to overcome a single failing position group. I know, Mahomes “hit guys in the face mask”. I’ll point out in response that those face masks were mostly wide open, because behind those face masks were not the faces of Breshad Perriman, Jevon Kearse, Vyncint Smith, Braxton Berrios, Lawrence Cager, Chris Herndon et. al.

So, that’s the truth about what’s behind the defense of Sam Darnold: a belief in the team over any individual player. Now you simply have to breakdown that all-22 film and figure out if Zach Wilson is worth more than a QB that showed one Jets Xfactor writer enough to publish an article with 100 reason to believe in him, plus 4 premium draft picks. I’ll leave the film analysis to you, since you’re analytical skills are “second to none”.

2 years ago

Great piece again, Robby. I was hanging onto the Team Sam bandwagon by my fingernails until the Colts game. At that point, it just became obvious to me that Sam couldn’t overcome his bad tendencies. I think he was still shellshocked from the ghosts game, and to some extent will always be. Stress has a way of making one revert to bad habits, and Sam has his share of those. I do believe he can be successful, if for no other reason than because if a dumb lug like Terry Bradshaw can make it to Canton, a lot of people can, with the right coaching and supporting cast, play competent NFL-caliber football. However, given all the reasons Robby provides here about the cap and the modern game, the Jets are in a position at #2 to choose between several talented QBs, all of them objectively better prospects than Sam ever was. It makes no sense to grind it back with Sam and hope he transcends his past–we could too easily end up with the worst of all worlds: another bad year confirming Sam is deeply flawed but now with little trade value, plus a worse position in a draft with fewer high-end QB prospects. Better to trade Sam now, while there is still a palpable narrative about him turning it around with a change of scenery, and while the opportunity to find his replacement is so rare.

2 years ago

I think you make the case for moving on pretty persuasively. There’s only one scenario that would make keeping him a good move–and that would be if he had a season so good that signing him to a multi-year contract was obvious. Anything short of that would mean that we made the wrong choice and possibly leave us with a decision that would be much harder than the one we face now.

Braden Bethwaite
Braden Bethwaite
2 years ago

Nice article Robby👍🏻 Can’t wait to see this unfold…