The path to Sam Darnold actually began when Jets general manager Mike Maccagnan, a year after inexplicably drafting Christian Hackenberg in the second round, passed on Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson to select Jamal Adams.
Watson shows up with his 9-4 Texans on Saturday at MetLife Stadium 20 games into a career that appears destined for stardom.
Watson, much like Mahomes when he began mimicking a young Brett Favre in his second season, stepped off the bus rifling touchdown passes as a rookie (19 TDs, 8 INTs before his season-ending ACL tear) and tormenting defenses with his legs (36-269-2 TDs) at the same time.
Darnold, whose career arc has included hitting the rookie wall and a four-interception nadir in Miami, has displayed unmistakable signs he can be the Jets’ long-lost franchise quarterback 50 years after Broadway Joe. Super Bowl Darnold can beat you with his arm and with his legs. He is unflappable. He is resilient and resourceful. He is wired right. And like Watson and Mahomes, he has that “it” factor. But the “it” factor alone guarantees nothing.
Watson (22 TDs, 9 INTs in 2018 and 74-410-2 TDs rushing) landed on a team with two key advantages that Darnold has not enjoyed, and will need next season to take the next step in his development:
Coaching: Watson has been nurtured by Bill O’Brien, who cut his teeth working with Tom Brady, and quarterbacks coach Sean Ryan.
“I think from the start, he’s always had a presence about him in the pocket,” Ryan told the Houston Chronicle last week. “He’s not been a first-progression-take-off-and-run type of guy. He’s just not that quarterback. More experience is going to mean that he’s going to hang in there and get through progressions, which we talk about all the time, and OB [O’Brien] and I are always in there talking to him about, ‘Hey, this is the progression of this play, and let’s stay in there and make the right choice.’ ”
Darnold (12 TDs, 15 INTs) needs an offensive guru, either as his next head coach or offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach, in the worst way. Mahomes has Andy Reid. Jared Goff has Sean McVay. Mitch Trubisky has Matt Nagy. Marcus Mariota has Matt LaFleur. Jimmy Garoppolo will have Kyle Shanahan again next season.
Playmakers: Watson inherited wide receiver Deandre Hopkins, the kind of elite weapon Darnold is missing. Hopkins caught 44 passes with seven TDs in Watson’s seven games last season, and has 84 receptions with nine TDs this season. Maccagnan needs to do better than Devin Smith and ArDarius Stewart. And with Houston speedster Will Fuller on IR, Texans general manager Brian Gaine traded for a big target receiver in Demaryius Thomas. Running back Le’Veon Bell and a go-to target would do wonders for Darnold.
“I think [Baker] Mayfield has more weapons than Darnold may have,” Texans safety Tyrann Matthieu said of the Browns’ No. 1-overall pick, “but I think both of those guys are showing great signs, especially as rookies.”
Darnold, like Watson, is dangerous extending plays, but his offensive line needs to improve. Watson’s offensive line has made strides in his sophomore season, but the Texans have allowed 46 sacks and Watson has been hit 100 times. Darnold has been sacked 22 times in 10 games, but his O-line will undergo renovation next season.
Adams has emerged as the face of the Jets’ defense, but Maccagnan has failed to find an impact pass rusher. Watson can vouch for how much easier life is knowing J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney have his back.
“I do think about where I’m going to be at in a year or two from now,” Darnold said this week. “I’m really excited about where I can go from here and really optimistic about the future and what it holds.”
He’s the franchise’s crown jewel. If the Jets do this right — big if — maybe they won’t have to wait another 50 years for that second Super Bowl.