Sam Darnold could have blamed any number of things for what went wrong in his three seasons in New York. And he’d have been justified with all of it.
The coaching changes from Todd Bowles to Adam Gase to Robert Saleh. The inability of the first two men to get more out of the former USC star. The lack of consistency along the offensive line. A mostly lousy receiving corps. The organization’s unwillingness to give him more time to improve. A change in general managers from the guy who drafted him - Mike Maccagnan - to the one once called him untouchable but traded him anyway - Joe Douglas.
But as Darnold had done throughout his career in New York, where he once was looked upon as the next Joe Namath, the 24-year-old quarterback pointed to the only factor that he believes truly mattered:
Just days away from facing the team that gave up on him, Darnold was given the opportunity to point to the shortcomings around him as reasons for his premature ouster. But when a reporter asked him Wednesday whether those myriad inadequacies of the Jets’ franchise contributed to his ouster, Darnold refused to make any excuses except the one that mattered.
"I didn’t do my job to the best of my ability," he said simply. "I think that’s really all there is to it."
It isn’t, of course. Darnold never stood much of a chance to survive longer than he did after Gase failed to be the quarterback guru Peyton Manning once made him out to be. He was caught in a revolving door of coaching changes, a roster that was rebuilt once and then again under two different general managers, and a 2-14 season that gave the Jets the No. 2 overall pick and the chance to find Darnold’s replacement.
The NFL wasted no time in offering an early litmus test of Darnold against Zach Wilson, choosing opening day in Carolina as the time and place for this unique passing of the torch from one New York quarterback to the next. It is a delectable storyline, with Darnold pitted against a quarterback Douglas and Saleh simply couldn’t resist as they pondered their options in the offseason.
Saleh said Wednesday the team strongly considered drafting Wilson and still keeping Darnold, but that arrangement simply wouldn’t have worked at any level. Wilson was given the keys to the offense immediately, while Darnold was dealt to the Panthers and given the chance to start over with coach Matt Rhule and what appears to be a stable situation moving forward.
Then again, Darnold once thought he’d be a lock to continue as the Jets’ quarterback long after he actually did.
"I don’t know if I have any regrets," Darnold said. "Obviously, things didn’t go our way. I wish we would have won more games. I think that’s pretty obvious. I met a lot of great people in New York, have a lot of friends still in the organization. I don’t regret anything."
Well, he’ll never admit as much, but it’s only human nature to regret that things didn’t go better. When you’re the third overall pick and don’t last past your third season with the team that drafted you, it’s understandable that there will be frustration. But like any quarterback trained to deal with adversity, Darnold does his best to stay in the moment and embrace what comes next.
And he does believe he’s in a better spot with his new team. Even if he has to see his old team right off the bat.
"I’m excited to play the Jets and see what (the Panthers) can do," he said.
Any feelings of revenge, of trying to show the Jets they gave up on him too soon?
"No," Darnold said. "My job is to go out there and play good football, and that’s all I’m thinking about. Just learning from some of the mistakes I made last year and years prior, and building on that. It’s going back to what I do best, relaxing and making sure that the game comes to me."
He now embraces the new opportunity, with a chance to write a better ending than the one in New York.
"It’s been feeling like I’ve been opening a new book," Darnold said of his time with the Panthers. "The start of the season is the next chapter."