New York Jets – Develop Sam Darnold By Playing Sam Darnold

Joe Caporoso on why the New York Jets should not be hesitant about playing Sam Darnold in 2018

It is common in sports to regurgitate a talking point that has frequently been used over a prolonged period of time. Sometimes certain truths hold but sometimes they become antiquated as a sport evolves. It is comfortable to rely on assumed “conventional thinking.” As this pertains to the New York Jets 2018 quarterback situation, it so easy to say the following it practically rolls off your tongue:

Sam Darnold is only 20 years old and has the perfect bridge and mentor quarterback to learn behind in Josh McCown. The Jets should not rush Darnold and ruin him, like they have previously ruined Geno Smith and Mark Sanchez by playing them prematurely. This city and media market will eat him up if he has any early struggles. Let Darnold sit on the bench for a year and learn behind McCown before potentially taking over in 2019…

It sounds good but it is incorrect. The New York Jets should have the mindset that their rookie quarterback, Sam Darnold, will be their starting quarterback in 2018 and should not shy away from believing this is the best possible thing for their franchise in the coming years.

This article is not advocating for the New York Jets to hand Sam Darnold the starting quarterback job. It is advocating for there to be a legitimate, open competition for the job this summer, very similar to what there was last summer.

Despite his reputation for wanting to stick with veterans, Todd Bowles gave Christian Hackenberg every chance to win the starting job last year. The first team training camp reps gradually skewed to him and Bryce Petty after the first week of practice and Hackenberg played the majority of the Jets first pre-season game and then started the second and third game. Josh McCown barely played last summer but was so far above a thoroughly incompetent Hackenberg and an injured Petty that the Jets had no choice but to start him because of how detrimental it would have been to every other player on the roster to have Hackenerg under center.

Sam Darnold is not Christian Hackenberg. Sam Darnold is the most talented quarterback on this team’s roster and if he is thrown into an open competition, he should exceed or roughly approximate 39 year old Josh McCown and a recovering Teddy Bridgewater, never mind Hackenberg or Petty (if they are still around). If the Jets have a similar competition to last year and it is remotely close, Darnold should be the team’s starter in week 1, not Josh McCown. (To counter the Teddy Bridgewater questions, the structure of his contract and the market for his services this offseason indicate he is far from being the player he was in 2015). The Jets may also not be shy about attempting to trade him for a draft pick, if he does prove himself to be healthy.

McCown was not nearly as good in 2017 as some Jets fans make him out to be. A closer look at his home/road splits, 4th quarter production and statistics when the team was trailing paint a clearer picture of that.

He also ended the season on IR after playing more games in a single season than he ever had in his career. Besides an inevitable regression to the mean of production, injury risk, McCown has no proven track record of successfully mentoring productive quarterbacks by playing in front of them. It isn’t his fault those quarterbacks ultimately failed but McCown can mentor an individual without being on the field playing all of the reps in front of him. Despite being a great human being by all accounts, he is a mediocre on field player, at best. Darnold will not pick up good habits watching him play, like he will watching him prepare or carry himself off the field.

The Jets can’t operate from a position of fear with Darnold. Rookie quarterbacks are rarely “ruined” by playing too soon. Mark Sanchez didn’t fail in New York because he started in 2009. He got better in 2010 because of playing in 2009 and he got better in 2011 because of playing in 2009 and 2010. Sanchez’s career fell apart when the roster deteriorated around him and the Tim Tebow circus came to town. Geno Smith was a second round pick and a vastly inferior prospect to Darnold (so was Sanchez, by the way).

The 2010 Jets do not make the AFC Championship Game if Sanchez doesn’t start as a rookie. The 2013 Seattle Seahawks do not win the Super Bowl if Russell Wilson doesn’t start as a rookie. The 2017 Philadelphia Eagles do not win the Super Bowl if Carson Wentz doesn’t start as a rookie. The 2017 Los Angeles Rams do not win the NF West if Jared Goff doesn’t get significant experience as a rookie. You develop in the NFL by playing and learning from your mistakes. The league has recognized this (and the below stat doesn’t even factor in mid round quarterbacks like Wilson, Dak Prescott and Derek Carr who have found success from starting day one).

Paxton Lynch started 2 games as a rookie, Johnny Manziel started 2 games as a rookie, Jake Locker started 0, Tim Tebow started 3, none of these guys magically improved from watching for a season, similar to Hackenberg never improved from watching Ryan Fitzpatrick or McCown.

People will always reference Aaron Rodgers and Jimmy Garoppolo, while failing to mention both players were behind generational, Hall of Fame quarterbacks. Josh McCown is not that. People may point to Patrick Mahomes, who appears set up well for success this year but he was sitting behind a quarterback who made the Pro Bowl in 2016 and 2017, along with winning back to back division titles. (Yes, Smith is a flawed quarterback which is why he was rightly traded away but it isn’t like Mahomes was sitting behind Trevor Siemian). There is also no reason to think Mahomes would have been negatively impacted by getting experience last season.

The Jets ceiling is about 6-10 with Josh McCown under center. If he plays 12+ games, it is a useless 6-10 with a 39 year old quarterback who will probably be coaching next year. The Jets can go 6-10 with Sam Darnold next year and it is a much more successful season if Darnold is learning from his mistakes and making progress by the season’s end. If that is the case, he becomes a useful recruiting tool in free agency for all that money the Jets have to spend. The Jets don’t need to punt 2018 for his on field development and push a narrative that 2019 will be his “learning season,” as they head into year nine of no playoffs and year five of Mike Maccagnan and Todd Bowles stewarding that streak.

As for the big, bad mean New York City fans and media that will chew up and spit out Darnold narrative. Who cares? The Earth is flat. The Jets play in New Jersey, not New York. Franchise quarterbacks in any NFL city need to deal with a high level of scrutiny. The Jets cannot let fans or beat writers dictate their personnel decisions and Darnold is going to need to learn sooner, rather than later to deal with criticism. It is part of being a NFL quarterback. The “bright lights” of New York should not be something that melts him in year 1 or year 5 or the Jets have a much bigger problem.

Whenever Darnold plays, there is going to be rough patches as he learns on the field. Peyton Manning threw 28 interceptions his rookie year. Troy Aikman threw 36 interceptions to 20 touchdowns over his first two seasons. Carson Wentz was a train wreck at times in 2016 and Jared Goff looked like a punter trying to play quarterback that same season. The key is for the Jets to stay patient through the early mistakes and to continue building around their franchise quarterback so they are ready to compete in the early years of his career, while he’s on a rookie deal. It isn’t always a linear line, either. Both Marcus Mariota and Jamies Winston made big sophomore leaps before regressing in year three. However, the Titans have been over .500 in back to back seasons and won a playoff game last year. The Bucs nearly made the playoffs in 2016 and should be a playoff contender in 2018, if Winston can get back to the player he was in 2016.

Let Darnold compete in camp and unless he looks completely out of place, play the most talented quarterback on your roster, which is him. You don’t learn how to play quarterback in the NFL by watching a below average starter from the sideline. You learn by playing through your mistakes, developing chemistry with your young offensive teammates, learning how to handle difficult times in your media market and then hopefully being a strong recruiting tool to bring more talent in around you.

The process starts now. It doesn’t need to be delayed in frozen carbonite for another year.

Photo Credit: 

Author: Joe Caporoso

Joe Caporoso is the Owner and EIC of Turn On The Jets. His writing has been featured in the New York Times, Huffington Post, MMQB and AdWeek. Caporoso played football his entire life, including four years at Muhlenberg as a wide receiver, where he was arguably the slowest receiver to ever start in school history. He is the EVP of Content at Whistle Sports