David Aitken on why Sam Darnold is the beginning of a sea change for this franchise, and why fans are right to celebrate him as such.
We made it.
January 23rd, 2011 was a day the Jets fan base has never truly recovered from. It was the beginning of a long deterioration between Rex Ryan and the Jets fan base, and the beginning of an even longer and greater deterioration of the Jets’ overall league standing. The moment the game ended, everyone knew it was one of the franchise’s greatest missed opportunities. But the longer time goes on, the date casts an even greater shadow. It marks the beginning of one of the longest playoff droughts in team history.
It takes a special brand of bad luck and sustained incompetence to miss postseason football as consistently as this franchise has recently. The NFL’s parity in spending power and “rewarding” the worst teams with the best draft capital means being on either end of the spectrum is tough. In the last four seasons, 28 of the league’s 32 teams have made the playoffs at least once. The life of being an NFL diehard fan can bring misery, but it’s not supposed to be miserable for this long.
We’ve been through Tebow Time, the Butt Fumble, the billboards. We’ve suffered through 19-minute midseason press conferences from a drowning general manager, a teammate induced broken jaw to a starting quarterback and several Fitz Tragedies. The Kyle Wilson finger wag, taking Quinton Coples over several excellent outside linebacker prospects only to attempt to convert Coples to that position a year later. We’ve seen one of the rare homegrown talents of this period, Muhammad Wilkerson, fall from grace and be unceremoniously released. We witnessed the selection of Christian Hackenberg with the intention of grooming him as a future starter. THE SELECTION OF CHRISTIAN HACKENBERG WITH THE INTENTION OF GROOMING HIM AS A FUTURE STARTER.
This fan base can be cynical, but with how torturous last seven years has been, the alternative is psychosis. If you are still here, and have maintained your sanity, congratulations. At last there is light at the end of the tunnel.
There hasn’t been this much excitement around a player the Jets have drafted in a very long time and for good reason. Sam Darnold is the best quarterback prospect the Jets have had on the roster since the AFL/NFL merger. He’s athletic, strong armed, accurate and creative. He was highly productive at a young age and has no injury questions. The league loved his mental toughness, poise and leadership. Off the field, he is boring as hell. He is the quarterback we’ve always wanted.
Even the most obvious comparable, the trade up for Mark Sanchez, doesn’t measure up. Sanchez played one good year of football in his only starting season as a 22-year-old redshirt junior at USC. Darnold was starting for USC just a few months into being 19, winning the job as a redshirt freshman. Sanchez had the chance to do what Darnold did when Matt Leinhart entered the NFL, but Sanchez instead could not beat out John David Booty for two seasons. Darnold is likely to play games in the NFL a year and a half younger than when Sanchez even was named USC starter. This is what a true blue chip prospect looks like.
Sam Darnold is the Jets’ ticket to respectability, and eventually a possible consistent contender. Mike Maccagnan’s “re-rebuild” has a few promising pieces, but until now has had no fulcrum to build around.
Under Maccagnan the Jets have gotten better than expected results from kicking the tires of veteran journeymen quarterbacks, but as an organization the Jets wisely decided to get serious at the position. Landing Darnold allows the Jets to finally enter the 21st century. Consistent passing offense is the biggest key to competing consistently, and the league has become even more passing oriented over the last decade. Going back over twenty years the Jets have gone from defensive minded head coach to the next, and that’s fine. But the offense has often taken a backseat, particularly in the last decade. The last time the Jets took a first round player from the offensive side of the ball was in 2009, the franchise’s last all-in attempt to establish a long term starter at quarterback.
The silver lining of going through rough patches in the NFL is that lacking established good players usually means plenty of spending clout in free agency. But free agency is a diluted market, and the teams looking to spend usually outnumber the amount of true difference makers available. Money is a key draw, but can’t be the only one. The Jets in the past two free agency periods have had money to spend but no consistent track record of on-field success or discernible direction. This too often leads to missing on targets or being dragged in a leverage play, like Ndamukong Suh and Dont’a Hightower have done to the Jets in the recent past.
Getting the quarterback changes everything. Darnold does not even have to be particularly good right away to affect the Jets as a free agent destination. Pat Mahomes played one game and Mitch Trubisky had a forgettable rookie year, yet the Chiefs were able to land Sammy Watkins and the Bears Allen Robinson on long term contracts. And should the Jets consider a head coaching change, Darnold will make the Jets an enticing project. The most appealing jobs are the ones with established starting quarterbacks.
The single greatest salary cap efficiency in the NFL is a starting quality quarterback on a rookie contract. Three of the last six Super Bowl winners started quarterbacks on rookie deals (although Wentz did not play in the playoffs, he was key in the Eagles sealing the number one seed). The Jets may not be a playoff contender in 2018, and 2019 may not be a reincarnation of the 2017-18 Eagles or 2013-14 Seahawks. But five years is a long time in the NFL, and the Jets will be paying Darnold well below market value for the majority of it. The Jets still have a few big needs on both sides of the ball, but the beauty of a franchise quarterback is that needs suddenly don’t seem as big as they otherwise would. Winning (in the regular season at least) is about realizing how there are few truly good NFL teams and even less that can play consistently good defense. Teams that can move the ball consistently through the air are already one step ahead.
Being a fan of the New York Jets over the last seven years has meant experiencing a lot more embarrassment than enjoyment. Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re not allowed to be over-the-top excited for Sam Darnold and what he could be for this franchise for the next twenty years. That’s the point of all this – being a fan is supposed to be fun, and the hope and belief is what makes it so. The difference is now there is something worth believing in.