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Making sense of the emotional New York Jets quarterback debate

Zach Wilson, Sam Darnold
Jet X Graphic, Getty Images

Zach Wilson, Justin Fields, Sam Darnold or somebody else? The New York Jets quarterback debate is a strange and frustrating undertaking.

Never has there been such an outpouring of love for a guy who threw nine touchdowns to 11 interceptions in a season. A negative Sam Darnold tweet invites a good percentage of New York Jets fandom to fully puff up and issue a challenge.

Pro Football Focus’ Sam Monson is just the latest to showcase his firm grasp on the subject.

“Pretty weird” is an accurate depiction of the current situation. Here’s a kid who entered the league with all the hype in the world. The 2017 Rose Bowl elevated him from up-and-coming NFL prospect to “can’t miss” gunslinger.

Then, something strange happened over the next year: He didn’t go No. 1 in the 2018 NFL draft. Instead of the California kid, the Cleveland Browns selected Baker Mayfield.

Now, the debate between Darnold and a rookie quarterback at No. 2 is as emotional a Jets topic as we’ve seen in recent memory. The question is, why?

The alarming college tape

Darnold turned the ball over 36 times in 27 career collegiate games (spanning two seasons) at USC. In addition to his 22 interceptions—which is a big number in its own right—Darnold fumbled the ball 20 times, losing 14.

While it’s true that collegiate turnovers don’t necessarily translate into disastrous results at the professional level, it should also hold true that this was a major problem of his heading into the league—one a lot of pundits deemed “fixable.” Could it simply be as easy as realizing his shortcomings between the ears?

It’s no secret that Darnold struggles when reading certain situations. He’s often locked onto a primary target pre-snap only to predetermine post-snap play. He’s failed gloriously when reading leverage downfield, leading to poor anticipation. He’s even missed wide-open targets when looking in that specific direction. (Yes, all quarterbacks miss open targets, but few have done so at Darnold’s rate over the last three years.)

Reps like these get the juices flowing on both sides of the argument. Anti-Darnold folks scream with arms fully raised while the diehard defenders rationalize. Missing wide-open guys never tell the entire story, but due to certain social media limitations, showcasing just one play heightens raw emotions.

Darnold is at his best when off-schedule. When the play breaks down and nothing is planned, the kid shows flashes. He’s the ultimate backyard quarterback, yet that’s exactly what pumps his value up in spite of horrific numbers and tape.

What an NFL general manager looks for most in a quarterback is what happens between the ears. The Jets have needed Darnold to “own the game.” He just hasn’t delivered.

Zach Wilson‘s ridiculous pro-day throw is just one more piece of evidence to pile onto his already-stacked physical attribute prowess. But “owning the game,” owning the line of scrimmage pre-snap and post-snap, is what separates great quarterbacks from the rest of the crowd.

Why would Darnold suddenly own the game now after three years? The answer comes down to “situation.”

The absolutist Adam Gase argument

The crux of the emotional Sam Darnold debate comes down to one guy. He was brought in despite an overwhelmingly negative reaction from the fanbase.

Adam Gase is his name. Delivering Darnold-specific pain to the fans was his game.

Or was it? Or more appropriately, to what degree did he deliver quarterback pain?

With him, they went 9-23. But without him, would Darnold’s outlook be as rosy as it currently is? What if Darnold still put up the same horrid tape without Gase on the sideline? Even a late-third-round pick sounds good, no less the first-rounder ESPN’s Adam Schefter kicked the offseason off with.

Why the Darnold debate is so emotional comes down to the sideline leadership in Florham Park, NJ over the last two years. Pointing to Ryan Tannehill pre and post-Gase is easy. Correlating that with Darnold is also easy. What’s difficult is realizing that the Jets don’t want a Tannehill-type quarterback—a point that should ease up on some of the emotion involved.

Joe Douglas‘s current mission statement cannot be as easy as finding a Tannehill-type player. Douglas should be (and most likely is) on a mission to find the next Patrick Mahomes.

Of course, getting to the Super Bowl with a league-average quarterback who fits a system nicely can be done. Just glance at Jared Goff a couple of years ago or Nick Foles before him. Let’s also not forget about Jimmy Garoppolo either.

What’s interesting, however, is that both Goff and Garoppolo were considered no-doubt-about-it studs at the position at the height of their team’s success. Nobody in the world thought Goff would be in Detroit right now just a few years back. Nobody in the world thought the Niners would be trading up to No. 3 for a quarterback just a couple of years ago.

Darnold belongs in this category until proven otherwise. He’s a system and personnel-dependent quarterback who can sink or rise with the rest of the team. There’s no doubt in my mind that No. 14 can turn out a 30-touchdown season in the near future, given the right circumstance.

Douglas cannot settle with that experience for his team—especially when a rookie quarterback would command a much cheaper dollar amount over four years as opposed to Darnold’s situation that sees him enter his final season.

Sure, the extra assets would be nice. Keeping Darnold and trading down does have its place in an argument, but it’s not Darnold and assets vs. Wilson or Fields. That’s not the correct formula. Instead, it needs to be Darnold and assets vs. Wilson or Fields and the cheap rookie quarterback contract.

When sifting through the last decade of Super Bowl participants—as 2011 saw the debut of the new CBA and the rookie wage scale—teams that get caught in the middle rarely get to the big game. Those who either have a legendary quarterback or a rookie quarterback contract leading the way get there often.

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Super Bowl champs:

  • Tampa Bay Buccaneers: legend in Tom Brady.
  • Kansas City Chiefs: rookie contract with Patrick Mahomes.
  • New England Patriots: legend in Tom Brady.
  • Philadelphia Eagles: rookie contract with Carson Wentz and cheap contract with Nick Foles.
  • New England Patriots: legend in Tom Brady.
  • Denver Broncos: legend in Peyton Manning
  • New England Patriots: legend in Tom Brady.
  • Seattle Seahawks: rookie contract with Russell Wilson.
  • Baltimore Ravens: rookie contract with Joe Flacco (fifth-year option worth $6.76 million).
  • New York Giants: postseason legend in Eli Manning.

Super Bowl runner-ups:

  • Kansas City Chiefs: perhaps a legend in Patrick Mahomes?
  • San Francisco 49ers: an outlier with Jimmy Garoppolo‘s massive contract.
  • Los Angeles Rams: rookie contract with Jared Goff.
  • New England Patriots: legend in Tom Brady.
  • Atlanta Falcons: an outlier with Matt Ryan‘s large contract.
  • Carolina Panthers: rookie contract with Cam Newton (fifth-year option worth $24 million).
  • Seattle Seahawks: rookie contract with Russell Wilson.
  • Denver Broncos: legend in Peyton Manning.
  • San Francisco 49ers: rookie contract with Colin Kaepernick.
  • New England Patriots: legend in Tom Brady.

The two outliers are Matt Ryan and Jimmy Garoppolo, both of whom cannot be called legends, and weren’t on rookie deals at the time of their Super Bowl appearances.

Sticking with Darnold would increase the chances that the Jets get stuck “in-between” much more than moving on by going Wilson or Fields at No. 2. During Gase in-season could have also increased the “stuck in-between” chances, but it was the Gase regime that really added fuel to this emotional fire.

In a world that promotes extremism, the blame scorecard, for many fans, reads like this:

  • Gase: 100 percent
  • Darnold: 0 percent

In reality, it’s much more of a 50/50 deal. Ask yourself this: Would Mahomes have put up just nine touchdowns to 11 interceptions this past season with the Jets?

For things to have been that bad offensively this past season, much more than the coach is to blame—despite the full realization that coaching in football makes the most critical impact in sports.

Gase’s mere presence added an incredible amount of fuel to the fire.

Hope and class

Dealing Darnold means the end of the road that was this specific journey. In the Spring of 2018, Darnold represented the next great hope for a collective fanbase. His surrounding hype was more than enough to believe he was the next guy in line to finally solve the organization’s quarterback woes—like Mark Sanchez and Chad Pennington before him.

Admitting defeat with Darnold means officially turning the page. Forget tough for a moment; it’s a highly-emotional thing to admit defeat, even as a fan.

Moreover, there hasn’t been another Jets player to come in and act so professionally at such a young age with so much hype attached. Darnold is the classy professional quarterback every franchise wants from its leader. He never missteps off the field, nor when speaking with the media.

How could anybody treat the guy who behaved so flawlessly while dealing with such incompetence so badly? It’s outrageous.

Unfortunately for Darnold, outrageous on a personal level has to be separated from outrage from an NFL professional level. The moment front offices allow emotion to impact business decisions is the instant organizations start unintentionally brewing trouble.

The reasons the Darnold conversation is so explosive are obvious to spot. Yet, for many who discuss the matter, it’s tough to keep emotions tabled.

There’s the pre-draft hype, the Adam Gase situation, the lack of an offensive line over the first two seasons, the class the kid shows off the field and the Jets’ historical failures in developing young quarterbacks. But there’s also the stuff that makes moving on the correct call.

Sloppy mechanics (going back to college), not owning the game, not processing information at a star-quarterback level and entering the fourth year of a rookie deal lead the way on the other side. There’s also the idea that Douglas’s mission needs to aim higher: finding the next Mahomes rather than hoping a struggling quarterback can somehow rebound on a one-year audition.

In the end, I solved nothing other than writing ideas down in an organized fashion. Then again, perhaps that’s what everybody needs.

From now until draft time, the Jets quarterback conversation will remain an emotional powder keg. It’d be much easier if Darnold acted like a clown off the field, or if Gase wasn’t the head coach for the last two seasons, or if Darnold could magically restart that rookie deal.

That’s simply not the case, and now, Joe Douglas readies himself for the most important decision of his life with emotions running at an all-time high.

Making sense of this emotional conversation is an impossibility until the New York Jets prove to the fanbase they now know what they’re doing. Making sense of this situation boils down to trust, and until the organization selects and develops a star quarterback, an emotionally-charged offseason debate is the order of the day.

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3 years ago

The ONLY reason to move on from Sam Darnold is economic. Sam’s play has been up and down, but when I see a rookie go toe to toe with Aaron Rodgers, I know how good that rookie can be. That rookie I saw was Sam Darnold. Joe Namath threw more INT’s than TD’s, Brett Fabre threw lots of INT’s. What I hate is the idea that a 21 or 22 year old kid is the end all and be all and if he’s not Johnny Unitas in his first couple of years he gets thrown under the bus. It’s almost like we want a finished product without having to develop it! I this Mahomes sat behind a veteran, Rodgers sat behind a veteran, as did Eli and Kaep. Situation is also important, Jackson landed with a stable, successful franchise, the Ravens, and they developed a game plan around him, Allen was given time to develop under guidance of excellent coaching, Mayfield has been slower to develop, but the Browns gave him weapons, Rosen got nothing from the Cardinals but a boot out the door when the Bidwells saw something new and shiny. Sam Darnold has had so so weapons for 3 years and really bad coaching for the last 2. I don’t see Wilson as a cut above Darnold, in fact Fields is a cut above Wilson, in my book, and still isn’t above Sam Darnold. The logical reason to boot Darnold to the side is his expiring rookie contract. A new player with a new rookie contract launches a new 5 year window of not paying a QB the big bucks. In 5 years do it again whether you’re successful or not. If and when Sam Darnold is ditched by the Jets, he will become the latest in a line of talented, high potential QB’s they have mismanaged and failed to develop. This pending decision speaks volumes about the historic short comings of the the Jets organization. The Jets have a nasty habit of turning silk purses into sows ears, especially when it comes to the QB position.