The news that Robert Saleh is now the head coach of the New York Jets should have Jets fans feeling cheery and optimistic, probably the best they’ve felt in a long while. Maybe not since the false promise of that 10-6 finish in 2015?
For a ten-day window in late December 2018 and January 2019, the future looked pretty bright. Rookie quarterback Sam Darnold had looked really sharp in late-season games against Buffalo, Green Bay, and Houston. All the Jets needed to do was connect Darnold with an offensive-minded coach who could maximize his talents and build an offensive line and weapons at skill positions around him, and they would be back in the playoff hunt.
And then the Jets hired Adam Gase, and our lives turned into a Bad Idea Jeans commercial. From that first bug-eyed press conference, deep in our guts, we could feel that churning, sickening sensation that with one head coaching hire, most of Darnold’s rookie contract years were destined to be wasted.
And now, as March begins, with free agency starting in a couple weeks, the draft next month, and an obsessively discussed “quarterback carousel” that could put a perennial Pro Bowler in a Jets uniform, we should be brimming with excitement about the coming season, but… we’re stuck on the tarmac, waiting for clearance from the tower.
Would DeShaun Watson be a transformative player if he were to end up in the green-and-white? Sure. Any quarterback who can come close to passing for 5,000 yards on an abysmal 4-12 team is about as dynamic as they come. The only nagging doubt about the Jets trading for Watson are the reports that Houston Texans management expects a king’s ransom with additional interest in return. If that report about Carolina offering three first-round picks and running back Christian McCaffrey are true, the Panthers are betting that Watson is the equivalent of four impact players… which feels like a big gamble. (The value of the Jets’ second overall pick probably ought to be considered as closer to two number ones; the trade value of the second overall pick is roughly equal to the last four picks of the first round.) These four first-round picks in 2020 and 2021 are a rare opportunity for the Jets to make big steps.
(As for that other hot rumor, count me as among those who find the notion of the Seattle Seahawks trading Russell Wilson just about unthinkable, at least for now.)
Assuming that the Jets cannot trade for Watson, the question then becomes whether to stay with Darnold or take a chance with either Justin Fields or Zach Wilson. The NFL beat writers seem strangely convinced that the Jets will stick with Darnold, which strikes me as the wrong move.
I am in the odd position of simultaneously believing A) Darnold is not washed-up or incapable of consistently playing well and B) both he and the Jets would be better off going their separate ways.
In a different environment, with better talent around him, and not saddled with The Worst Coach in the Modern NFL ™, it is not difficult to envision Sam Darnold having a Ryan Tannehill-style renaissance. Even in a mostly disappointing 2020 season, Darnold again demonstrated he can throw into narrow windows, evade rushers and extend plays with his legs, and scramble effectively when he sees room in front of him. Give Darnold consistent pass protection, a running game that can set up fewer third-and-longs, and some taller receivers who don’t drop passes, and I think he can carve up this league.
I just don’t know if he can do it in a Jets uniform.
What is clear is that Darnold, at least at this stage of his career, cannot elevate the play of the players around him. There’s not too much shame in that; only a handful of the top quarterbacks at any given time can do that. He also consistently misses three games a year, which is not disastrous but also not ideal. But Darnold is always going to have to live with comparisons to the other quarterbacks selected in the first round of 2018. Lamar Jackson was named MVP. Josh Allen got his team to the AFC Championship Game. Baker Mayfield’s gotten his team into the playoffs and beaten the Steelers. And Josh Rosen is in the FBI’s Witness Protection Program. (checks notes) I’m sorry, Rosen is now a backup for the San Francisco 49ers.
If the Jets keep Darnold, he won’t just have the pressure of being the third overall pick of the 2018 draft, who has so far produced three mostly disappointing or inconsistent years. His $10 million salary hit will still be a relative bargain, although the prospect of picking up a fifth-year option at $25 million for 2022 feels pricey considering his production so far.
If the Jets keep Darnold, he’ll face the pressure of not being Justin Fields or Zach Wilson or whomever the Jets would have taken with that 2nd overall pick. Darnold will be consistently compared to those two. If the Jets don’t trade for Watson or draft Fields or Wilson, they will have probably used their copious salary cap space and draft capital to strengthen the offense around Darnold. There won’t be any excuses for Darnold anymore. A disappointing 2021 season would indeed tattoo the label “FLOP” on the former USC standout.
While Darnold conceivably could defy all the odds and become the nimble gunslinger that Jets fans have envisioned for three years… Joe Douglas, Robert Saleh and Mike LaFleur are probably better off with “their guy” at quarterback, on a salary-cap-friendly rookie contract. If the interest in trading for Darnold is as great as some NFL columnists suggest, the Jets should get that late first rounder or early-to-mid second rounder and let Darnold start over in some new situation with less pressure. If it’s possible, ship Darnold off to the NFC, where any future renaissance wouldn’t stand in the way of the Jets’ path to the Super Bowl. The Washington Redsk- er, Football Team might be a good fit. San Francisco seems to have fallen out of love with Jimmy Garoppalo. The Chicago Bears are still looking for an upgrade from Mitch Trubisky. Does New Orleans want a backup plan for Taysom Hill? Atlanta? Reunite Sam with Robby Anderson in Carolina if the Watson trade doesn’t work out?
The mock drafts that seem to appear every day this offseason are all forced to begin with shaky assumptions about what the Jets’ roster will look like in April. We won’t know whether the Jets ought to select a new quarterback in the draft until Houston and DeShaun Watson come to an agreement about his fate. We won’t really know the preeminent draft needs until free agency is complete. And while one thing is already guaranteed for 2021 – better coaching – we won’t really know what expectations are reasonable for this team until we see how free agency and the draft shape the roster. Back to meaningful games in December? Contending for a wild card spot? Challenging the Bills for an AFC East title?
We should be flying high in 2021… as soon as the tower clears us for take-off.