Sometimes the best moves are the ones you never make.
Such as the one that Mike Maccagnan couldn’t pull off in March.
The Jets’ general manager had plotted for weeks to make a run at free-agent quarterback Kirk Cousins to finally establish stability at the team’s most important position. As the 2017 season wound down and the Jets sputtered to a 5-11 record, Maccagnan and other key Jets executives had settled on Cousins as their primary target and would spare no expense in trying to lure him.
Maccagnan knew it would take bold and decisive action to land the most coveted quarterback on the open market, and he was willing to offer a fully guaranteed contract, an almost unheard-of gambit in the NFL. The injury risk rarely results in such deals.
Shortly before the opening of free agency, the Jets let it be known to Cousins that they were willing to go as high as $90 million over three years.
A successful recruitment of Cousins, combined with drafting an impact player such as pass rusher Bradley Chubb of North Carolina State or Notre Dame guard Quentin Nelson with their sixth overall pick, could have been transformative moves in the rebuilding process.
But Maccagnan was aware that Cousins had privately balked at the idea of coming to the Jets, preferring a more playoff-ready roster in Minnesota. Though the free-agency signing period didn’t begin until March 14, Maccagnan had heard by late February that his dream scenario might not materialize. It therefore was not a surprise to him or coach Todd Bowles that Cousins used the Jets’ offer to leverage more money out of the Vikings, who increased their bid from $75 million to $84 million.
Even before Cousins announced that he would take his first free-agent visit to Minnesota, Maccagnan and the Jets knew it was over. It was on to Plan B — long before they publicly announced as much.
Maccagnan soon pulled off his most consequential move since becoming general manager in 2015. On March 17, he traded with the Colts to move up from No. 6 to No. 3 to be in position for one of the draft’s top quarterbacks.
The move eventually landed them prized USC quarterback Sam Darnold, who had fallen out of favor with the Browns, who had the No. 1 pick and preferred Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield. The Giants, who also needed to consider their future at quarterback with Eli Manning having turned 37, went with Penn State running back Saquon Barkley, clearing the way for the Jets to take Darnold at No. 3.
Losing out on Cousins turned out to be a godsend.
Darnold has been everything the Jets could have expected — and more — as he won the starting job in training camp and has shown steady improvement throughout the season. He is set to face Cousins and the Vikings on Sunday at MetLife Stadium, but regardless of the outcome, the Jets should consider themselves winners in the larger game of roster-building.
Cousins surely would have provided a major upgrade at quarterback, but having your own blue-chip passer from Day 1 is by far the preferred result. The Jets would have had Cousins under contract for three years. Darnold is under contract for four years at a third of the price — a $30-million deal that includes $20 million in guaranteed money. The Jets also have a fifth-year option with Darnold.
“I don’t worry about the guys I don’t get,” Bowles said. “Minnesota got [Cousins], and they’re happy. We got Sam, and we’re happy.”
Happy? Try ecstatic.
Darnold has picked up offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates’ system quickly, has weathered some early adversity with aplomb and has shown leadership qualities that far exceed his age. At 21, he has embraced his role and hasn’t flinched in the glare of the New York spotlight.
Growing up in Southern California and playing at nationally renowned USC proved to be the right environment to feel the weight of expectation, and Darnold is comfortable in his own skin. This situation is not too big for him.
“It’s really cool to be able to just kind of be me, but also when I do talk, when I do say something in the huddle, guys can kind of look at me and just believe, ‘OK, here we go,’ ” Darnold said. “But at the same time, I’m just a normal dude who wants to get a win just like everyone else.”
Just a normal dude who wants to get a win. Kind of a perfect description of the kid with the California cool demeanor who’s just as comfortable in the hard-edged Northeast.
You thus should not be surprised that he’s taking Sunday's matchup in stride, even if the Darnold-Cousins story line is irresistible and Cousins is sure to hear it from the crowd. Cousins admitted in a recent documentary about his journey to the Vikings that he leveraged the Jets’ offer into a better deal with the Vikings.
“For me, I'm just going out there every single week, treating it as a faceless opponent and knowing what they do defensively, knowing what they do well, maybe what they don’t do so well, and just attacking them,” Darnold said. “Like I've said before, take what they give me but at the same time take the shots when they're there.”
It’s the perfect mindset for a quarterback who has grown by leaps and bounds in the early part of his career. Darnold clearly will not obsess over trying to outplay Cousins, nor should he. The stakes are too important for a Jets team that suddenly finds itself in the thick of the AFC East race, having followed a three-game skid with a two-game winning streak.
And even if the Jets don’t win Sunday, they still win. If anything, Cousins did them a favor by going to Minnesota and forcing the Jets to go in another direction.
They’ve got the right quarterback for the right situation.