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Sam Darnold goes from laid-back California to Super Bowl-starved Jets

The Jets introduce No. 3 overall draft pick

The Jets introduce No. 3 overall draft pick Sam Darnold at their training facility in Florham Park, N.J. on Friday, April 27, 2018. Credit: Corey Sipkin

ARLINGTON, Texas

There is nearly a half-century’s worth of frustration facing Sam Darnold, even though the Jets’ new quarterback isn’t even of legal drinking age. With Joe Namath still standing as the only quarterback to win a Super Bowl for the team, Darnold now carries the burden of a franchise and a fan base that has known mostly frustration in the post-Namath era.

Darnold can’t possibly know the depth of that exasperation, because he’s a Southern California kid who hasn’t lived it like Jets fans.

“I’m aware of it,” he said Friday at his introductory news conference at 1 Jets Drive. “Not growing up a Jets fan, I don’t understand it quite to that extent.”

He will find out soon enough how very real that frustration is — and the sense of doom that goes along with it.

If he needs any help understanding, he ought to tune in to WFAN’s Joe Benigno, a Jersey guy whose Jets fandom embodies the aggravation. But even Benigno and the most disaffected Jets fans have to agree that Darnold offers the kind of hope that few quarterbacks in the recent past have provided.

Somehow, some way, the Jets didn’t have to tank last season and still came away with arguably the most complete quarterback prospect in the draft.

Remember when it seemed as if they could win no more than one or two games — or even none — last season to have a path to Darnold? Well, the Jets were a much more competitive lot, especially early on, and found meaning in a 6-10 season by discovering a solid core of young players and a veteran quarterback in Josh McCown who now will serve as Darnold’s mentor.

General manager Mike Maccagnan smartly traded up from No. 6 to No. 3, and after the Browns took Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield No. 1 and the Giants selected Penn State running back Saquon Barkley, Darnold fell into the Jets’ laps.

It was a stunningly positive twist of fate, and Maccagnan’s gamble paid off in spectacular fashion.

Now for the hard part.

Darnold, 20, must prove he can be as close to the second coming of Namath as any Jets quarterback since Joe Willie threw his last pass for them in 1976. Many have tried, and some have come close — Chad Pennington and Vinny Testaverde gave the Jets their best chance — but the Jets are still waiting to see a championship quarterback.

If Darnold can be that guy, he not only will have solved the riddle of the Jets’ quarterback situation but will have conquered the curse of the USC quarterback.

For a school that has produced so many fine college passers, Trojans quarterbacks have collectively been a major disappointment at the NFL level. That list includes the most recent Jets first-round quarterback out of USC — Mark Sanchez, who went fifth overall in 2009 after GM Mike Tannenbaum swung a trade with Eric Mangini’s Browns. Dubbed “The Sanchize” by coach Rex Ryan, Sanchez was a part of the Jets’ two AFC Championship Game appearances in Ryan’s (and Sanchez’s) first two years, but he never developed into the big-time passer the Jets had hoped.

Among the other failed USC quarterbacks in the pros: Matt Leinart, Matt Barkley, Rob Johnson and perhaps the biggest bust of all, Todd Marinovich.

Former Trojans starter Carson Palmer produced a solid career for the Bengals, Raiders and Cardinals, but he never played in a Super Bowl. So Darnold has a chance to rewrite USC history as he puts his mark on the Jets in the years to come.

Darnold is not big on flash, he’s not going to be a quote machine who creates back-page headlines, and he doesn’t appear to be the type to lose his way by succumbing to the temptations of New York celebrity. What he does bring is a work ethic that will serve him well in the crucible that is the NFL.

“I’m going to continue to be myself,” he said. “I’m going to work as hard as I’m going to work. I’m going to work my tail off no matter what.”

He believes it will end well.

“I’m very confident here that we’re going to win some games,” he said, “and I think I’m going to be here for a long time.”

From Darnold’s lips to Benigno’s ears.

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