Is Sam Darnold the Jets’ savior?
The 2020 NFL season will be an intricate challenge even for a team steeped in tradition and excellent football culture, even for a club with a habit for victory, even for a group not experiencing turmoil with a key member of the roster, even for a franchise not trying to learn if its franchise quarterback of the future is also it’s starting quarterback of the present.
BREAKING NEWS: The Jets fall into none of those categories.
As they report for the soft start of training camp this week, for a long season of re-acclimation to football activity and a recalibration of what daily life inside the league is going to be like in the time of COVID-19, they enter a 52nd straight year without an appearance in the Super Bowl. Only the Lions — who have never been to the big game and enter the season at 63 years since a league title-game appearance — have experienced a longer run of futility (unless you choose to count the title-free-since-’64 Browns and conveniently forget that while they own the old Cleveland history, they’re actually an expansion team).
The Jets haven’t had a winning season in five years. They have had one in the last nine. They have … well, you get it. Not a lot of winning around here for a bit.
And then there is Sam.
And of all the things that beguile the Jets this season, defining who Sam Darnold is, and what he can be, was always going to be the most important story to track. It is no mystery who rules the roost in the NFL, but in case anyone had been sleeping on it, Kansas City devoted half a billion dollars — that’s with a “b” — to Patrick Mahomes and hardly anyone batted an eye because, well, Mahomes is awfully good and, more to the point, he guided the Chiefs to the championship in February.
(And thereby removed themselves from that list of championship-free teams, where for decades they stood but one skinny year under the Jets on the catalogue of calamity.)
The Jets want to believe Darnold is the kind of rare talent who they can build such aspirations around, and it isn’t lapsing into hyperbole to say that they need him to become the kind of franchise pillar they haven’t had since Joe Namath was 26 years old. The Jets have had temporary valves of hope through the years — Ken O’Brien and Chad Pennington; Mark Sanchez; even a late-in-the-game Vinny Testaverde.
And look: Guys like Drew Brees and Tom Brady aren’t easy to get.
But there is belief that Darnold can be that kind of guy. On two dreadful teams thus far he has been better than his supporting cast, especially when fully healthy. The Jets were 7-6 on his watch last year. That is progress. But the Jets want more. They need more. They need to know. They need to truly believe.
Sam has to make them believe.
“I’m trying to work on continuing to learn the playbook, protections, route concepts, where to go if [options] one, two and three are covered,” Darnold said Tuesday on a Zoom call with reporters. “There is so much more I know now than at this time last year. I have a ton more confidence in myself.”
He added: “It’s definitely a process spent hours and hours trying to learn and I still have stuff to learn but I’m comfortable teaching the young guys and the guys who weren’t here before.”
Can the Jets’ long tradition of dysfunction be dissolved? Can Adam Gase discover a way to harness Darnold’s talent, engage him to the point where he maximizes his natural gifts, minimizes his occasional brain lapses and blossoms into a franchise-level performer? Can Jets GM Joe Douglas put pieces around him to help draw out that full potential — better pieces, if we are speaking bluntly, than the ones that presently surround him?
And can Darnold rise above the middling roster and do that for which a true franchise quarterback is capable: Make his teammates better than they are?
Look, Eli Manning spent some time throwing balls to Amani Toomer (one of the best receivers in Giants history) and some other time throwing to Odell Beckham Jr., who in spasms can be as gifted a receiver as there is. But he also threw a lot of balls though the years to a lot of pass-catchers who, frankly, became their best selves when Eli was throwing to them. Can Darnold do that now, with the options he has now?
Can he become that, in the event Douglas doesn’t immediately develop a Florham Park-to-Canton receiving pipeline? And can he simply be better than he’s been across two years and 26 games: an 11-15 record, 36 TDs to 27 picks, a rating of 81.1? In the best of situations and the most normal of years, the Jets would be hunting answers for those critical questions.
Neither is the case this year. And yet the Jets still want to know about Sam. They still need to know.