Ten years ago in 2009, manning the reigns of the Jets offense was Mark Sanchez. Twenty years ago in 1999, Ray Lucas, Rick Mirer, and Vinny Testaverde all played quarterback for the Jets in one single season. Since that chaotic 1999 season, 16 different players have started a regular season game at quarterback for the New York Jets.
Once again in 2018, the Jets tried to find their franchise quarterback in Sam Darnold. The question looming over every Jets fan’s mind was if Sam Darnold is “the guy.” Being in AFC east, for the last 19 seasons, the Jets have been able to witness what someone like that can do. While the Jets have been engaged in a seemingly endless game of quarterback roulette, the rival Patriots have had just two quarterbacks in the last twenty years, along with six super bowl titles. By now the Jets should know what differentiates a run of the mill starting quarterback and “the guy.”
So what exactly is “the guy?” Think Brady, Brees, and Rodgers. Think the quarterback who blows your mind, beats the odds, and makes miracles happen. He racks up yards like they’re nothing and throws touchdown pass after touchdown pass. He has to cross off other boxes, less about performance, like character, football IQ, and leadership ability.
For the last 20 years the Jets have been searching endlessly for this player. They thought they had him with Vinny Testaverde, Chad Pennington, and then Mark Sanchez. But why weren’t any of these quarterbacks able to solidify their place as the Jets’ “guy?”
The most successful in this group of quarterbacks was Mark Sanchez. He took the Jets to the AFC championship in two consecutive seasons and the Jets for a moment thought they had found their “guy.” Then Sanchez came apart in, doomed by his mistakes and a desperate Jets front office. All of this cascaded, until Sanchez was released in 2014.
The Darnold Dilemma
Sam Darnold’s first NFL pass was a cross field toss that ended in a pick six. Jets fans stood bewildered, thinking here we go again. Darnold would momentarily overcome that first interception, leading the Jets to a blowout victory against the Lions, opening their season with a win.
From there Darnold was up and down, finishing the year with 17 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. In some moments it felt as if the league was witnessing a superstar in the making, while in other games he resembled Mark Sanchez. At the end of the day, Darnold’s play left Jets fans disappointed yet hopeful.
This offseason the Jets surrounded Darnold with some more offensive firepower: a star running back in Le’Veon Bell and wide receiver Jamison Crowder. There is expectation for the 2019 Jets squad, and Darnold going into this year is gonna be forced to show improvement and maturity.
Darnold’s play last year was that of a rookie, a player adjusting to NFL caliber defenses and building chemistry with an entirely new roster. But Darnold is now the quarterback of a team with playoff hopes, what are the keys to his success.
1. Rely on Le’Veon Bell
Bell signed with the Jets after sitting out all 16 games for the Steelers. He’s got fresh legs and has something to prove. Bell’s a valuable asset for a number of reasons. First, Bell takes off some of the weight on Sam Darnold back. Last year, the Jets couldn’t confidently call on Isaiah Crowell and Bilal Powell to do the heavy lifting. But with Bell in the backfield, Darnold can trust that his running back has some tricks up his sleeve. Secondly, Bell is a weapon in the flats. When the pocket collapses or things get too dicey for the second year quarterback, Darnold can unload the ball to Bell and watch him work. This kind of tool will help Darnold develop his eyes and decision-making. Lastly, Bell’s a knowledgeable veteran. The sixth year veteran has played with both Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown, and knows what makes a playoff team tick. Bell can take Darnold under his wing and guide Darnold to the postseason.
2. Use the Tight End
Last year, Darnold consistently passed to tight end Chris Herndon, developing a new aspect of the Jets offense. If Darnold continues to utilize Herndon, it opens up coverages for his speedy wide receivers in the air and holes Le’Veon Bell on the ground. The Jets drafted another tight end in Trevon Wesco, bringing to the table another option up the middle for Sam Darnold. If Darnold wants to lower is interception total, he needs to make things easy and for things to be easy, the tight ends need to be in the equation.
3. Trust the Process
This key is for the Jets front office and Jets fans.
This year there’s a lot of hype around the Jets. Fans are excited, the front office is all in, and the pressure is on Sam Darnold. However, Darnold’s still a young quarterback, and if the Jets want to make the postseason and make that long-awaited Super Bowl journey, they’ve got to know this. 2019 might not necessarily be the year. But as long as they keep developing Darnold into “the guy” that journey will take its course.
Darnold isn’t Brady and he’s probably not Namath, but the Jets still have their guy. They just need to build around Darnold, develop him into an above-average quarterback with smart decision making, and at some point that Super Bowl run will come.