Yes, Joe Douglas and the New York Jets made the right move by sending Sam Darnold to the Carolina Panthers in exchange for three picks.
New York Jets fans are divided. It’s as obvious as it is frustrating.
On one hand, amateur NFL executives have come to grips with Sam Darnold‘s futility since entering the league three years ago. On the other hand, other amateur execs believe coaching represents the simple fix.
Further complicating matters are the many contrasting opinions coming from the mainstream media—many of which come directly from the mouths of big-name Jets fans such as Mike Greenberg and Rich Eisen. Let’s not lie to ourselves: The ESPNs and NFL Networks of the world are tough to shut out completely in this digital media-rich world.
As much as many fans would have loved to see the debate abruptly end, there’s just no chance—not when this organization has ripped through first-round selections like Tic-Tacs over the last decade.
Monday’s trade that sent Darnold to the Carolina Panthers in exchange for a 2021 sixth-round pick, 2022 second-round selection and 2022 fourth-rounder didn’t solve much in the fandom’s incredibly rabid debate world. It simply allowed everybody to better understand who Joe Douglas is as a general manager.
“Yeah, I think that’s a fair assessment to say,” Douglas answered Tuesday afternoon when asked if he’s currently locked in on a quarterback in the two-hole. “I think based on the decision we made yesterday, you can kind of see the direction we’re heading. When it comes to pick two, obviously never say never. Like I’ve said to you guys in the past, I’ll always answer the phone if it’s ringing.”
To understand the decision you first need to understand Douglas. Groomed by long-time Baltimore Ravens executive Ozzie Newsome, Douglas’s scouting prowess has perfectly married a keen sense of today’s salary-cap climate.
The NFL is a much different league post-2011. Once the rookie wage scale was implemented after Sam Bradford’s outrageous rookie contract, a fresh blueprint for building consistent winners suddenly appeared, and the Seattle Seahawks were first to bat.
After drafting extremely well in 2010, 2011 and 2012, an organization that finished 4-12 in 2008 and 5-11 a year later won the Super Bowl in 2013. Russell Wilson’s $526.217K base salary led the way.
Their chief rival, the San Francisco 49ers, also enjoyed a nice turnaround thanks in part to tremendous drafting. Colin Kaepernick’s $607.922K base salary in 2012 led his team to the Super Bowl. There, they lost to a tremendous Baltimore Ravens team led by Joe Flacco, a man playing on the last year of his rookie deal. Douglas, a man who was still a scout for the Ravens at the time, enjoyed a front-row seat.
Later in the decade, the Philadelphia Eagles, led by Carson Wentz’s $1.662M salary, captured their first Super Bowl championship. (Nick Foles raked in a cool $4.025M.) In fact, of the last 20 Super Bowl participants (10 from the AFC, 10 from the NFC), eight entered the game with a quarterback still on his rookie deal. Similar to his presence in Baltimore, Douglas enjoyed a front-row seat in Philadelphia as well.
The other 12 squads were led by the following ho-hum names:
- Tom Brady (six times)
- Patrick Mahomes (once, as his first Super Bowl happened while he was still on his rookie deal)
- Peyton Manning (twice)
- Eli Manning (once)
- Jimmy Garoppolo (once)
- Matt Ryan (once)
OK, so perhaps the “ho-hum” tag actually does belong to Jimmy Garoppolo with no sarcasm present. (We’ll leave Matt Ryan alone for now.)
Other than the aforementioned Wilson, Kaepernick, Flacco and Wentz-led teams, names such as Mahomes, Wilson (again), Jared Goff and Cam Newton round out the rookie-contract-led squads to make it to the season’s final contest.
The following consistently good teams over the last decade were established courtesy of tremendous drafting and a cheaper rookie quarterback deal:
- Seattle Seahawks (Russell Wilson)
- San Francisco 49ers (Colin Kaepernick)
- Baltimore Ravens (Joe Flacco)
- Carolina Panthers (Cam Newton: debatable)
- Indianapolis Colts (Andrew Luck)
- Philadelphia Eagles (Carson Wentz)
- Los Angeles Rams (Jared Goff)
- Kansas City Chiefs (Patrick Mahomes)
- Baltimore Ravens (Lamar Jackson)
- Buffalo Bills (Josh Allen: possibly)
The results lead to one of two pretty obvious strategies: Look to build a team around the cheap quarterback rookie contract or somehow acquire a legend. Where you don’t want to be is somewhere in the middle, no man’s land, where guys like Matthew Stafford, Phillip Rivers, Derek Carr, Kirk Cousins, Dak Prescott, Kirk Cousins, Andy Dalton and Jay Cutler have toiled for the better part of the last decade.
Once that second contract is dished out, the odds immediately decrease (and rapidly decrease when the quarterback doesn’t live up to his percentage share of the cap).
Resetting everything was important, even in the face of a tough decision like this. And yeah, there was talk of possibly tag-teaming Darnold with the incoming rookie slinger.
“Ultimately, we felt like this was a decision that was best for all parties,” Douglas said. “I could tell you guys, as well, that there was even a discussion about us taking a quarterback at pick number two and having Sam here for the season. And ultimately, we felt that that wouldn’t be the best situation for Sam, the rookie quarterback, Coach Saleh and his staff, and the locker room. We felt like this was the best decision for the entire organization moving forward, in hitting the reset button.”
A tremendous argument for keeping Darnold and trading down existed. Why not gloriously add to the already-embarrassing NFL draft asset riches Douglas has piled up? It comes down to one legitimate reason: It’s Douglas’s mission to find the next truly special quarterback.
If Adam Gase hadn’t ever stepped foot in Florham Park, NJ, would the Darnold optimism have remained this high? It’s Gase whose coaching has put everybody in this situation. Perhaps it’s Gase who represented Douglas’s greatest positive in the Darnold trade discussions. Without him, who knows what Darnold’s value would have looked like.
Lest we forget, Darnold’s sophomore campaign under Gase was statistically better than his rookie season under Jeremy Bates. He threw for 159 more yards, two more touchdowns and two fewer interceptions in the same number of games in 2019 as opposed to 2018. His completion percentage was even 2.3 points higher.
Are we 100 percent certain that Gase is 100 percent to blame for Darnold’s failures? Nothing is absolute.
For those who believe coaching represented the Darnold quick fix and are furious over the deal, a nonsensical pattern has surfaced. In the eyes of many, Darnold has been fully absolved thanks to having Gase. Yet, there’s anger at Douglas for either trading away Darnold and/or finishing 2-14 a year ago.
If Darnold is fully absolved due to Gase, why isn’t Douglas as well? After all, he too inherited Gase, and he did so while he and the head coach were on the same hierarchical level (both reporting to ownership).
Quite honestly, the fact Douglas acquired a second, fourth and sixth for a kid who threw nine touchdowns to 11 interceptions in 12 games this past season is a mini-miracle in itself. The greater point is the idea that “special” shines through no matter the situation.
No, I’m not referring to a kid putting up an MVP-caliber season while fighting through horrible conditions. That’s just not possible in football, the greatest team sport of them all. Not even Tom Brady could have led the 2020 Jets to the playoffs. But if Patrick Mahomes was leading the way this past season, he’s surely putting up far greater numbers than nine touchdowns in 12 games. He’s at least providing everybody a firm feeling of what special looks like.
We just never saw “special” in Darnold—only dribs and drabs as he escaped the pocket. Special is what’s identified when consistency is present. It’s what’s pointed to when a horrible franchise quickly realizes it has its franchise stud at the helm. With Darnold, that feeling never surfaced—despite a decade-long playoff drought tricking a good percentage of the fanbase in thinking Darnold met that criteria.
Nonetheless, Douglas admitted that if the Jets were picking lower in the first round, he’d gladly roll the dice on Darnold. It wasn’t an easy decision.
“Yeah, we went through just about every scenario you could possibly discuss,” Douglas added. “That was certainly one of the scenarios we discussed. We felt ultimately, at the end of the day, this was an opportunity. We feel really good about the draft class as a whole and the quarterback class specifically that this was an opportunity to hit the reset button financially, so to speak.”
Douglas and the Jets simply feel Wilson has the chance to be special. He fits Mike LaFleur’s system and allows Douglas the highest possible ceiling moving forward.
Yes, the possible draft capital that would come with a trade-down also helps fill that ceiling, but to pretend it’s guaranteed or even easy to find the right trade-down partner is to live in Homer Simpson’s fantasy land of chocolate (see Season 3, Episode 11).
What the diehard Darnold backers fail to fully consume is the idea that two things can be true at the same time. Mike Maccagnan and Gase could have failed Darnold just as Darnold could have failed himself over the last three years. Also, Darnold can still have success elsewhere even though trading him was the right move.
Rolling the dice on a one-year audition is a hell of a situation for a general manager looking to create a legitimate roster from the draft, which takes time, and a brand-spanking-new coaching staff. A fourth-year Darnold putting up a Week 1 stinker creates uneasiness that could easily hurt the patience department.
It’s also not easy to put yourself in a situation to acquire special quarterback talent in the draft. There’s no magic wand to simply “make it happen” for a kid who suddenly emerges just in time for the 2022 NFL draft.
If Darnold put up a 2021 season that featured 24 touchdowns, 15 interceptions and 3,350 yards in 15 games, what’s a general manager to do? At that point, the Jets’ two options are to let Darnold walk or dish out the mega-bucks. Even Pete Rose would blush at the gamble that accompanies the mega-bucks route.
The Wilson route allows for growth in every area. The depth chart’s potential is higher (thanks to the extra cap space) and the coaching staff’s timetable is on par with the quarterback. Keeping Darnold would have meant giving him a third head coach and third offensive boss in four seasons.
Make no mistake about it: Darnold can enjoy tremendous NFL seasons moving forward. It’ll just have to come by way of the Goff or Garoppolo ilk—quarterbacks who are personnel and system dependent. Unfortunately for Sam, that’s the type of guy a football front office boss wants to avoid when the second contract comes calling.
In the end, Douglas will have to be right about the BYU kid. While I’d argue that Douglas’s legacy is not solely tied to this decision—as recent history suggests average quarterbacks can lead great teams to the Super Bowl—he’ll have to be correct for max potential to come to fruition.
Unlike previous regimes, Douglas’s value-driven approach that matches today’s business landscape, combined with the process-driven language that’s been uttered since he took the job, should have the currently divided house of New York Jets fandom eventually coming together as one in the not-so-distant future.
“I think you feel pressure every day you walk into the building,” Douglas told the media. “You want to do this job to the best of your ability. You want to take the information that you have at hand and make the best possible decisions that you can make. But we do that together. We do that as a unit.”
Pressure? What pressure? It’s just another day in the steady process that aims to right a sinking ship nobody expects to float properly in the first place.