Boiled down to its essence, the NFL is a league of coaches and quarterbacks.
Find a worthy coach, you’re ahead of the game. Find that coach AND a great quarterback, and you will compete for a Super Bowl.
It’s really that simple, and Joe Douglas - the man who is about to make monumental decisions on both - knows it.
"Obviously, organizations that have long-term success, they’ve gotten the head coach and quarterback right," the Jets’ general manager said Tuesday during his first public comments since Sunday night’s firing of Adam Gase. "We have a lot of decisions to make, and the one that we’re focused on right now is head coach. After that, we’re going to have quite a few more decisions to make."
It is a critically important time for a franchise that hasn’t won a Super Bowl in more than half a century, and Douglas is at the epicenter of how this team’s fate will unfold in the years ahead. The decisions he makes on the next coach and the next quarterback will cast the die, for better or for worse.
Get the coach right, and there is reasonable hope for a turnaround. Get the coach and the quarterback right, and the Jets can legitimately think about becoming a playoff team. And perhaps one day a Super Bowl team for the first time since Joe Namath wagged his index finger to the sky coming off the field at the Orange Bowl after the Jets shocked the Colts, 16-7, in Super Bowl III.
Douglas inherited the Gase-Sam Darnold partnership when he was hired in June, 2019, and he hoped the relationship would blossom into meaningful progress. Instead, Gase proved unworthy of the job, winning just nine games over two seasons. Darnold, once anointed as The Franchise when he was drafted in 2018, has regressed substantially, partly because of the unfortunate circumstances around him that included injuries to key players and a substandard supporting cast, but also because he simply wasn’t good enough.
It is now to the point that Douglas, who called Darnold the team’s only untouchable player at the draft deadline in 2019, will not commit to the former USC star in 2021.
"I think that Sam truly does have a bright future in this league," Douglas said. "A 23-year-old quarterback, Sam’s still going to get better every year."
Notice that Douglas spoke of Darnold’s future "in this league," and not "with this team." He was clearly leaving himself an out if the coach he hires believes that the team is better off starting with someone else, conceivably in this year’s draft. I asked Douglas if he feels good about the quarterback prospects in the draft, but he didn’t answer directly, saying simply that the "No. 1 focus, our No. 1 goal is get the right person in here [as coach] and lead the franchise."
Clearly, Douglas has created wiggle room about whether or not to keep Darnold, and I believe he’s prepared to move on from him. Especially if the coach he hires believes that’s the best course.
All things considered, it’s a good year for a franchise to start anew at the two most important positions. There is a deep pool of coaching candidates, including, but not limited to Kansas City offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus, Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith and Ravens defensive coordinator Don "Wink" Martindale - all of whom are on the Jets’ radar. Other names will surface in the coming days and weeks.
And there may even be an outlier as the process unfolds, similar to the Joe Judge out-of-nowhere hire with the Giants last year. But overall, this is a very good year to find a coach. It’s a deep pool from which to choose, and Douglas stands a good chance of getting the right guy.
There also is a solid group of draft-eligible quarterbacks, starting with Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, who appears headed to Jacksonville, but may not be a sure thing after his shaky performance in the Sugar Bowl. Ohio State’s Justin Fields, who outplayed Lawrence in that game, has seen his stock rise. Brigham Young's Zach Wilson is being talked about as a top-10 player. And Alabama’s Mac Jones is coming off a strong season.
Douglas already has shown promise in drafting players like tackle Mekhi Becton, wide receiver Denzel Mims and safety Ashtyn Davis. He got two first-round picks - and then some - for Jamal Adams, who didn’t want to be with the Jets any longer. And he has created plenty of salary cap space in 2021-22 to bring in solid veteran talent.
It’s all there in front of him, but only if he gets it right with the two most indispensable people in any organization. If Douglas finds the right coach and the right quarterback, there are playoff years ahead.
As someone else once famously said about this team: I guarantee it.