"With the third pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, the New York Jets select . . . Sam Darnold, quarterback, USC."
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell welcomed Darnold to the NFL with those words on April 26, 2018, and the two men shared the obligatory bear hug on a makeshift stage at AT&T Stadium in Dallas. Wearing a navy blue suit, a brown tie and a Jets cap, Darnold began his career with unbridled optimism as the quarterback who finally might rescue the Jets from years of disappointment and maybe, just maybe, be to this generation of Jets fans what Joe Namath was to a previous one.
It was a much more subdued Darnold who stood behind a microphone in the Jets’ locker room late Sunday afternoon, responding to reporters’ questions on a Zoom call with clipped answers a few minutes after the Jets fell to 0-7 with an 18-10 loss to the Bills at MetLife Stadium.
His smile was gone. His expression was one of disappointment and almost resignation over how badly things have turned out in his third — and possibly final — season with the Jets.
His coach saw the frustration and later took him aside for an impromptu meeting in an attempt to lift his spirits. But Darnold sounded no better on Monday; though he tried his best to put a positive spin on a situation that simply doesn’t offer one, he sounded defeated.
"Obviously, we’re not where we want to be right now," he said on a conference call. "We’re 0-7. It’s not ideal."
Not ideal? It’s about as bad as it can get for the 23-year-old quarterback. Once considered the team’s salvation, Darnold now might have only nine games remaining in his time with the Jets. They are careening toward the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 draft, and if they are awarded that choice, it will mean Darnold is the quarterback of the worst team in football.
It also could mean that general manager Joe Douglas will look to another quarterback — Trevor Lawrence of Clemson — as Darnold’s successor.
Life comes at you fast in the NFL, doesn’t it?
Darnold always has maintained a sense of professionalism about his job, never second-guessing his coaches and never blaming his teammates — even if it would be completely understandable if he did both.
He has been a victim of bad timing throughout his career with the Jets. The coach in place when he was drafted, Todd Bowles, was let go after the quarterback’s first NFL season. Now Bowles’ successor, Adam Gase, is flaming out in spectacular fashion in Darnold's third season.
It is virtually inconceivable that Gase will be back next season, and it seems logical that a new coach would benefit from a new quarterback on his rookie contract as Douglas continues to reconstruct the roster. Darnold doesn’t publicly address that scenario, but he is well aware of the dynamic and the speculation it has spawned.
"I mean, I have social media," he said last week. "I’ve seen some of the things."
The noise will only get louder the more the Jets lose. They will face defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City on the road on Sunday and already are 20-point underdogs.
But Darnold shouldn’t lose hope entirely, even if his best hope for a successful NFL career lies somewhere outside the metropolitan area. Some free advice for a talented, hard-working quarterback with terrific leadership skills: Hang in, play the long game and opportunity will present itself in the years ahead.
Look no further than another quarterback whose career was mired in mediocrity under Gase. Like Darnold, Ryan Tannehill was a former first-round pick inherited by Gase, who took over as the Dolphins’ coach in 2016. Miami went to the playoffs in Gase’s first season, but after two straight years with no postseason berth, he was dismissed.
Tannehill was a middling quarterback in Miami and was traded to the Titans by general manager Chris Grier in 2019 for minimal compensation. The deal was Tannehill and a 2019 sixth-round pick to Tennessee for the Titans’ seventh-round pick last year and a fourth-rounder in 2020.
Today, the 32-year-old Tannehill is in the conversation for this year’s MVP.
The Titans are atop the AFC South at 5-1, and he has thrown 15 touchdown passes and only two interceptions.
Tannehill helped Tennessee reach the AFC Championship Game last season before losing to eventual Super Bowl champion Kansas City.
It was a long and sometimes uncertain path for him, but he hung around and seized his opportunity when it presented itself.
Darnold may have to travel a similar path if the Jets move on from him, but he’s 23, so time still is very much on his side. So is talent.
Darnold is a capable quarterback who can succeed in the right situation, like the one that fellow Class of 2018 quarterback Josh Allen finds himself in with the Bills. Buffalo has had coaching stability with Sean McDermott and patient roster-building by general manager Brandon Beane. After Sunday’s win over the Jets, the Bills (5-2) are strong contenders for the AFC East title.
I have no doubt that Darnold could have similar success in Buffalo if he were given the Bills’ supporting cast. Instead, he’s stuck in no man’s land with the Jets. It’s an unwinnable situation. Given Darnold’s dejected demeanor in recent days, maybe he’s starting to realize it, too.
Maybe one day, like Tannehill, he’ll have a chance to look back on this chapter of his career as a learning experience on the way to something better.