LOS ANGELES -- Jerry Reese stood alone in the back of the USC end zone, leaning against the goalpost as he watched the Trojans' quarterbacks warm up. The New York Giants' embattled general manager was dressed casually, looking as if he wanted to blend into the SoCal crowd. He wore jeans, a dark baseball cap and earphones that presumably weren't streaming New York talk radio.
While his ears were occupied, Reese's eyes focused on the future: Sam Darnold, a 20-year-old prodigy who will be some team's future.
Reese's intense stare was interrupted by a gentle tap on the shoulder from his New York Jets counterpart, Mike Maccagnan, who stopped to say hello. They exchanged pleasantries for about two minutes, creating this oddly appropriate scene:
Here were the top football men in New York, both in search of a young franchise quarterback, standing about 10 yards away from the potential top pick in the 2018 draft. On the other side of the field was UCLA's Josh Rosen, another elite quarterback prospect.
NFL executives aren't allowed to comment about underclassmen -- a mind reader from the Venice Beach boardwalk might have helped for our purposes -- but you can assume Reese and Maccagnan wouldn't have made the cross-country trip if they weren't intrigued.
For the Jets, Giants and 18 other teams, it was one-stop scouting Saturday night at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. It was Darnold versus Rosen, and each delivered in his own unique style. For the quarterback-needy franchises in attendance, the soundtrack to the evening was probably similar to a lyric from the movie "La La Land."
City of stars
Are you shining just for me?
New York should be a city of stars, especially when it comes to quarterbacks. But two-time Super Bowl champion Eli Manning, 36, is in the twilight of his Giants career, and the Jets haven't had a transcendent player at the game's most important position since Joe Namath. Broadway Joe is 74, old enough to be Darnold's or Rosen's grandfather.
Now we have a rare storm developing on the horizon. The Giants (2-9) could have a top-three draft pick and the Jets (4-6) could be in the top 10, setting up some New York-style quarterback drama come April. The last time the Jets and Giants used top-10 picks on quarterbacks in the same year was ... never.
Wouldn't it be cool if Darnold and Rosen took their rivalry to New York?
"They're both can't-miss guys," said former Super Bowl champion Trent Dilfer, a California-raised quarterback who has known both players since they were in high school in Southern California. "Without speaking in hyperbole, they're two of the best prospects we've had in a while.
"Sam is intuitive. He's cool. His best stuff comes out in the clutch. Josh is just pure. He's like a golfer who hits everything in the middle of the face. And I don't think New York would be too big for either one of them."
Keyshawn Johnson, a former No. 1 overall pick who made the jump from USC to the New York stage as a member of the Jets, believes both players have the talent and mental toughness to survive the glare of Gotham.
"I think Sam would be perfect in New York," said Johnson, who knows Darnold through his alma mater and coached Rosen in a 7-on-7 summer league that traveled the country in high school. "Sam doesn't say anything, and he's a football guy. Josh has a little more Broadway Joe in him, a little Keyshawn Johnson in him. He's gonna bite back. He's a little more colorful."
No fewer than 30 NFL representatives turned out to watch the first (and probably last) college showdown between Darnold and Rosen. The game was a microcosm of their careers. Rosen made the "wow" throws and posted the gaudy numbers (421 yards and three touchdowns), but Darnold delivered timely plays and won the game 28-23.
Darnold wins. Rosen dazzles.
"The most talented passer in the country," one AFC scout at the game said of Rosen.
The golden boys, who grew up 65 miles from each other, both experienced rough patches this season. Darnold's turnovers (an FBS-high 17) became a national story, with some critics saying the weight of immense expectations got to him around midseason. Since then, Darnold has rallied with four strong games.
"I'd be concerned if he continued to struggle, but he rebounded and looks like the player from last year," the scout said. "He erased some of the doubts that had crept in. This will help him going forward. He showed he can handle struggles and adversity."
The knock on Rosen, something that has followed him since he was a freshman, is that he lacks maturity. He can be difficult to coach. He has a sense of entitlement. His infamous hot-tub photo from 2015 remains the focal point in every conversation about his football character.
Memo to Josh: You can expect to be questioned about it at the NFL scouting combine.
"People say he's spoiled because he's a private-school kid from Manhattan Beach who drove an Audi in high school. That's what that is," Johnson said. "So he had a hot tub in college. That's what everybody's looking at? If I were him, I'd have a hot tub, too."
Dilfer acknowledged Rosen's personality "can be edgy and polarizing," but he said the UCLA star has matured in recent years. In high school, Rosen was a participant in Dilfer's Elite 11 quarterback camp and returned last summer as a counselor. Dilfer said Rosen "really grew" as a person in that time.
New York can be a vicious place for quarterbacks. Ask Mark Sanchez, the former USC hotshot who flamed out after three promising years. Ask Geno Smith, who was verbally abused by fans and physically abused by one of his teammates. In 2015, he was sucker-punched by linebacker IK Enemkpali, resulting in a broken jaw and effectively ending Smith's career as a starter.
That Manning has lasted 14 years in the market is remarkable. His stoic, even-keeled personality has a lot to do with it. In that sense, Darnold is more like Manning than Rosen, but Dilfer interjected, "Sam has way more dude in him than Eli. Sam isn't an, 'Aw shucks, gosh-darn it' guy. He's the coolest guy in the room. He's humble in a nonabrasive way, and people gravitate to him."
Darnold is a rock star on the USC campus. After defeating UCLA, he enjoyed the ultimate Trojan moment. He climbed the band leader's stepladder and led the marching band in its post-victory celebration. When he was done, the crowd chanted, "One more year! One more year!"
Later, speaking to a few reporters outside the locker room, Darnold was asked about his debut as a conductor and the chant. He jumped into his answer, saying, "I'm not going to say anything about that last part ..."
Darnold refuses to discuss his looming decision. As a third-year sophomore, he has two years of eligibility remaining. The draft deadline for underclassmen is Jan. 15. People who know him believe he will return for another season, disappointing quarterback-starved fans in New York and Cleveland, among other cities.
Why stay? He has only 21 career starts, and he happens to like college life, even without a hot tub in his room. Others say his decision could hinge on which team has the No. 1 overall pick. Right now, the winless Browns are the heavy favorites, which could dissuade Darnold from turning pro.
As for Rosen, 20, it would be an upset if he remains at UCLA. He was born to play in the NFL. In pregame warm-ups, he drew the attention of Maccagnan, who spent most of the time on UCLA's side of the field, jotting notes. The Jets GM watched the game from the stands, where he saw Rosen make several NFL-caliber throws. One pass in particular left scouts buzzing: a 46-yard completion that went off like a rocket and returned to earth like a feather.
Rosen and Darnold will take their rivalry to the NFL. The only questions are when and where.
New York could use a little Hollywood.