The referendum is about to begin.
With the Giants and Jets at opposite ends of the developmental spectrum — the Giants are in win-now mode; the Jets are playing for next year and beyond — we are about to find out if either or both teams made the right calls on Draft Day 2018.
Or if either or both messed up.
Saquon Barkley and Sam Darnold begin their NFL careers amid great expectations, and both may hold the key to how their franchises fare in the years to come.
The Giants drafted Barkley in hopes of adding a backfield talent the likes of which they’ve never had. The Jets went with Darnold in hopes of finding — finally — their first championship quarterback since the Joe Namath era.
Pressure? Absolutely. Enormous pressure.
But both teams, in a rare instance of drafting this high in the same year, believe they have found answers to pressing questions in these two young players.
The Barkley-Darnold link goes beyond the timing of their arrival here. It goes to the very heart of both teams’ fate and will be a constant reminder of whether the general managers who picked them made the right call.
It is particularly significant for Dave Gettleman, whose first major decision in his role as the Giants’ front-office boss could have lasting consequences.
Gettleman strongly believes that Eli Manning has plenty of life left in the arm with which he won two Super Bowl MVP awards. He’s an avowed old-school football man who believes you win by running the football and stopping the run — and, of course, getting big-time quarterback play — and his belief in his current quarterback meant he could put off the drafting of Manning’s successor, the Giants’ quarterback of the future.
It thus was a no-brainer to take Barkley, the former Penn State star who is equally adept at running between the tackles and turning short passes into long gains.
If Gettleman is proved correct about Manning and the quarterback does have a few good years left, then it absolutely was the right call and the Giants might be a championship-contending team before Manning is through.
If not . . .
That’s where Darnold comes in.
The big second-guess here is that Gettleman might have missed an opportunity to draft a player who could turn into the next Manning. Darnold has quickly gotten up to speed with the Jets’ offense and will go into the season as their Day 1 starter, the youngest opening-day starter since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. If Darnold becomes a star and Manning fades quickly and leaves the Giants with no choice but to find his successor, the Barkley pick might prove to be one giant miscalculation.
Gettleman is keenly aware of the skepticism connected with his calculation about Manning and Barkley’s ability to help him in the near term. But he is a man of conviction, forged on decades of scouting, and he trusts what he sees. He believes to his core that Barkley was the right choice all along, in part because he didn’t fall in love with any of this year’s draft-eligible quarterbacks.
That includes Darnold, of course, and reminders of Darnold’s development will be staring Gettleman in the face. After all, his office is just a few football fields away from MetLife Stadium, where the careers of Darnold and Barkley will unfold in the coming seasons.
For Jets general manager Mike Maccagnan, it was a no-brainer to take Darnold after boldly trading up to the third overall pick. Gettleman’s belief in Barkley was a godsend for the Jets, who were prepared to take either Darnold, Baker Mayfield or Josh Allen. But Darnold was the biggest catch of all, and with the Browns choosing Mayfield and the Giants going with Barkley, the celebratory mood in the Jets’ front office was palpable.
Darnold had widely been viewed as the consensus No. 1 quarterback among NFL scouts, but Browns first-year general manager John Dorsey was smitten with Mayfield from the start and gave the Jets their opening. Darnold did nothing to disappoint in his first training camp, showing a maturity beyond his years in grasping the Jets’ offense and playing just about even with veterans Josh McCown and Teddy Bridgewater.
With the Jets in a continuing rebuild mode, it made sense to go with Darnold, get a third-round pick from the Saints for Bridgewater and begin what likely will be a difficult apprenticeship for Darnold.
He will lead an offense that is not rich with talent, including an offensive line that is considered well below average. But the Jets’
belief is that any struggles Darnold encounters now eventually will turn into success as he deals with the inevitable growing pains of the near term.
It’s all about tomorrow for the Jets. It’s all about today for the Giants.
Let’s go. Important answers await.