He came to the Jets on the night of April 26, 2018, amid great expectations, offering hope that maybe, after so many disappointments, the Jets had found the answer at quarterback. That Sam Darnold might finally be this generation’s version of Joe Namath and might finally deliver a championship to the Jets after more than half a century’s worth of waiting.
But not even three years later, with the team still flailing about and Darnold’s development impeded not only by his own limitations, but by the inadequacy of his teammates and coaches, the Jets face the distinct possibility that Darnold may not be the answer at all. That if their downward spiral continues under Adam Gase, there might be another wholesale change ahead, with Jets fans possibly turning their lonely eyes to Trevor Lawrence and yet another coach.
Darnold is stuck squarely in the middle, a quarterback who is already on his second head coach and must play alongside a rebuilt offense whose talent was already thin coming into the season and is now ravaged even further by a spate of injuries. At 0-2 and now missing his top three receivers, his best running back and his starting center and right tackle, Darnold stands little chance of even treading water in his third NFL season.
By contrast, his fellow Class of 2018 quarterback, Josh Allen, has the luxury of coaching and roster stability in Buffalo, and there is every reason to believe he can lead a very good Bills team to the playoffs a second straight year and possibly contend for a Super Bowl in the not-too-distant future.
Darnold has not expressed a scintilla of complaint in his time with the Jets and has been the consummate pro. He assigns no blame to the coaching staff, accepts all the responsibility of his and his team’s failures and has been as stand-up a guy as there is. But if the losing continues – and there’s no reason to think it won’t, given Gase’s uninspiring play-calling and the team’s inadequate talent level on both sides of the ball – then who knows if Darnold will be in position to finish the job he started.
Now, for the record, the Jets have given no indication they are ready to move on from Darnold. On the contrary, Gase has spoken glowingly of his quarterback and, perhaps more importantly, general manager Joe Douglas has offered unqualified support for Darnold as his quarterback of the present AND future.
But there is a scenario that could unfold in the months ahead to at least give Douglas reason to consider a potential course correction. That scenario is this: If the Jets continue to careen toward a calamitous season – we’re talking 1-15 or 2-14 – and they end up with the first overall pick in the 2021 draft, then Douglas will have to ponder the very real possibility of taking Clemson’s star quarterback and starting over.
In that scenario, there’s simply no way Gase could continue as coach, which would mean a third head coach in four years for Darnold. Douglas might consider using that No. 1 pick to select a pass rusher the Jets so desperately require, or else trading the pick for multiple choices and filling several needs.
But if Lawrence is deemed to be a generational talent – and there are those who already believe that to be the case – then Douglas will have to think about starting over with him and dealing Darnold to a quarterback-needy team.
Look, Darnold isn’t the problem with the Jets. He’s a good young quarterback with plenty of upside and, given the right players around him, can flourish much the way Allen has in Buffalo. But the Jets are still multiple years away from having a playoff-contending roster, and with Darnold expected to look for a new contract in the next year or two and thus put some constraints on Douglas’ ability to sign additional players, then there will be some tough choices ahead.
Recent history shows that teams with marquee quarterbacks on their first contracts are in prime position, especially when those teams are good enough to contend for a Super Bowl early on. The Seahawks won the Super Bowl with Russell Wilson on his first contract; same with the Chiefs and Patrick Mahomes, the Ravens and Joe Flacco and the Giants’ first Super Bowl with Eli Manning.
Having a quarterback sign a new deal after a championship doesn’t necessarily hamstring the team, as the Patriots showed with Tom Brady, who agreed to multiple salary-cap friendly extensions that usually paid him below-market compensation. And Mahomes was rewarded with a deal worth upward of half a billion dollars. But it certainly helps to have a quarterback on his first contract when it comes to addressing other team needs.
And the Jets have so many needs right now that signing Darnold to a monster contract next year might inhibit their ability to build a strong enough team around him over an extended period.
Drafting Lawrence would allow you to start over from a salary cap perspective and, just as importantly from a coaching perspective. Another coaching change for Darnold would require another readjustment period that would require multiple years.
There is still plenty of time for the Jets to figure things out, but if the wheels continue to come off in the weeks and months ahead, then there are going to be some hard choices to be made. A coaching change is the easy part. A quarterback change is where it gets complicated.
Douglas will certainly have his work cut out, whether Darnold is the long-term quarterback or not.
Not what Gronk signed up for
Tom Brady did a great selling job on former Patriots teammate Rob Gronkowski, coaxing the future Hall of Fame tight end out of retirement to join him in Tampa Bay. But things haven’t worked out quite the way Gronk envisioned – at least not yet. Through two games, he has been targeted by Brady just four times and has two catches for 11 yards.
"I’m a blocking tight end," Gronkowski said with solid dose of passive-aggressive displeasure. "I came here to block, baby. Four targets is four more than I thought I was going to get."
Gronkowski retired after the Patriots’ Super Bowl victory following the 2018 season and enjoyed a carefree lifestyle free of the burdens associated with the physicality of the NFL. But he left the door open to coming back, and as soon as Brady signed with the Bucs, Gronkowski was eager to return.
"It feels good just to be out there and playing football again," he said. "Going out there with the guys – we won last week, which was great. Just get that feeling of a win again felt good. Just going out, practicing throughout the week and preparing – it feels good to be out there just playing the game of football. I just have to keep working hard, though. There’s always areas where I can improve big time, especially in the pass game a lot. It doesn’t matter if you get a lot of passes called your way. If I’m not ready, then it’s never going to work. Just have to be ready at all times and just improve my game both in the pass game and the run game. I can definitely improve."
Gronkowski said he’s happy to be back with Brady, but "there’s been times where you’re working, you’re grinding and you’re digging deep to get through things. That’s not usually the joyous time when you’re digging deep, but that’s part of football [and] that’s part of what you signed up for."
(Not so) bold prediction: Gronk is done – for good – after this season.
Sunday’s Steelers-Texans game at Heinz Field will hold more significance than usual for the Watt family.
Three Watt brothers will be involved in the game, marking the first time they’ve played in the same game at any level. J.J. Watt, of course, is the Texans’ All-Pro defensive end, while T.J. is an emerging star as the Steelers’ best pass rusher and Derek plays fullback for Pittsburgh.
"It’s unbelievable. It’s truly incredible," J.J. Watt said. "Just to have all of us playing at Wisconsin [at different times] was really cool. Just to have all of us playing in the NFL was really cool. To play against another brother was cool. Now, to have all of us on the field at the same time in the same game, it really doesn’t get any better than that."
It’s just the second time since 1927 when three brothers will play in the same NFL game. Last year, Tremaine and Terrell Edmunds of the Bills played Trey Edmunds of the Steelers. Joe, Cobb and Bill Rooney all played for the Duluth Eskimos in 1927.
Billion dollar baby
Patrick Mahomes agreed to a record-setting contract worth an estimated half a billion – with a b – dollars in the offseason. But was that enough for Kansas City’s All-Pro quarterback, who has already won a regular season MVP and a Super Bowl MVP?
"They could have paid him a billion, and I think he’s still underpaid," Ravens defensive coordinator Don "Wink" Martindale said of Mahomes.
It’s not just Mahomes’ physical brilliance that impresses Martindale.
"He’s at that football IQ level of [Tom] Brady and [Peyton] Manning and those type of quarterbacks," Martindale said.
The Ravens will have their hands full defending against Mahomes & Co. when the teams meet on Monday night in Baltimore. It will be the third matchup between Mahomes and the Ravens’ own wunderkind quarterback, Lamar Jackson. Kansas City beat the Ravens, 27-24, in overtime in 2018 and also won last year’s matchup, 33-28. Both games were in Kansas City.
While the focus will be on the quarterback matchup, Jackson won’t be consumed with Mahomes.
"I don’t have to focus on Mahomes. I have to focus on their defense," Jackson said. "I have to focus on scoring. I have to focus on my job and making my offense do our thing. But my defense has to worry about him."
This will be the first game in NFL history featuring two MVP winners under the age of 26. And it will be the fifth game in the last six years highlighting the two most recent MVPs.
The last time was on Dec. 8, 2019, when Mahomes got the better of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in a 23-16 win in Kansas City.
Mahomes thinks the world of Jackson, who is not only a competitor, but a friend.
"When you play this quarterback position, it’s a tight group," Mahomes said. "You shoot ideas off each other. He’s a great player. He can make all the throws, he can run with the ball, he can really do it all. It’s fun to watch guys like that. I look forward to the contest this week."
You’re not the only one, Patrick. This is a matchup made in football heaven, and if both quarterbacks stay healthy over the long run, it could be this generation’s Brady-Manning rivalry.