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SportsColumnistsBob Glauber

Jets made right move by trading Sam Darnold

Sam Darnold of the Panthers looks on against

Sam Darnold of the Panthers looks on against the Giants at MetLife Stadium on Sunday, Oct. 24, 2021. Credit: Mike Stobe

With uncertainty continuing to hover over the Jets’ quarterback situation now that Robert Saleh has at least cracked the door open to keeping Mike White as his starter once Zach Wilson’s knee injury is sufficiently healed, at least they got some closure on another quarterback issue that had previously been front and center.

It is now official: They made the right call on Sam Darnold.

While Saleh will let the White-Wilson dynamic play out in the short term, the coach and general manager Joe Douglas can look back on the overarching issue they faced in their fledgling partnership coming into the season. The two men deliberated for weeks about what to do with Darnold once Douglas selected Saleh as his coach in January. The outcome of that debate was the correct one when it came to the No. 3 overall pick of the 2018 draft.

They chose to move on from Darnold, deciding that the former USC quarterback’s proclivity for turning the ball over was the difference between keeping Darnold and surrounding him with a better cast on offense and moving on to try and do better.

It remains to be seen whether they’ve hit on Wilson, because less than half a rookie season is not enough time to make that evaluation. But after Darnold’s ill-fated run in Carolina, which now appears at an end after he suffered a fractured bone in his throwing shoulder and the Panthers signed erstwhile No. 1 overall pick Cam Newton on Thursday.

Newton is signed only through the end of the season and will be a free agent in 2022, and Darnold is under contract next season. But it would be an upset if he resumes his role as the starter once he is healthy. It seems even more remote that he’d be their long-term starter after the season, because even coach Matt Rhule, who passed up the chance to draft a quarterback this year because he believed Darnold was his guy, had run out of patience with Darnold.

The Panthers started off well enough, beating the Jets in the opener on the way to a 3-0 record. But they have lost five of their last six, scoring a combined 28 points over his last three starts. And with the Panthers needing a replacement because of Darnold’s latest injury, they turned to the past to take one-time NFL MVP Newton for the rest of the season.

As he has done with other thorny situations, including the Jamal Adams staredown that netted the Jets two first-round picks, Douglas got plenty of value for a player he’d decided against keeping. The Panthers surrendered a sixth-round pick in 2021 and second- and fourth-round choices next season. That’s quite a prize for a player the Panthers appear to have given up on as the answer at quarterback.

It’s too bad for Darnold, because he has been nothing but a true pro through the first three-plus seasons in the NFL. He’s got plenty of arm talent, he’s a terrific leader who never once ripped his teammates or coaches, but he simply hasn’t been able to adequately address his turnover problem. He had just seven touchdown passes, an NFL-high 11 interceptions and six fumbles this season. He has 52 touchdown passes and 50 interceptions for his career.

That production is just not good enough for the third overall pick, no matter how incomplete his surrounding cast has been. He had a much better situation in Carolina than he did with the Jets, with Christian McCaffrey providing excellent all-around play at running back. But McCaffrey may have masked Darnold’s deficiencies, because the quarterback was lost when McCaffrey missed time with a hamstring injury. Even when McCaffrey came back, Darnold wasn't running the offense well enough.

Rhule seemed willing to give Darnold the benefit of time and patience, and even shot down persistent reports that the Panthers were interested in trading for Deshaun Watson of the Texans. He said shortly before the trading deadline that he believed Darnold was his quarterback for the here-and-now and the foreseeable future.

But things change quickly in the NFL, and Rhule has been non-committal about Darnold ever since. The coach will try and piece things together with Newton, who returned Thursday to a hero’s welcome after previously being released after the 2019 season. He played last year with the Patriots, throwing just eight touchdown passes, and the team moved on from Newton in training camp after deciding that first-round pick Mac Jones would lead the offense.

Jones has gotten the better of Wilson so far, with the Patriots 5-4 and in position to contend for the AFC East title. Now Wilson must wait until Mike White either plays his way out of the job or Saleh decides it’s time to put the rookie back in. But that will sort itself out in the coming weeks.

At least the Jets don’t have to deal with an even worse problem. At least they made the right decision on Darnold and avoided an even bigger mess had they kept him.

New York Sports