Mike Maccagnan attended his first Sam Darnold game on Oct. 27, 2016, at the Los Angeles Coliseum, but he certainly wasn't there to scout the redshirt freshman. No, he flew cross country to check out the other quarterback, Cal's Davis Webb, but what he saw that night from Darnold -- more important, what he heard about him -- would resonate for the next 18 months.
It culminated last Thursday when the New York Jets, blown away that Darnold wasn't picked by the Cleveland Browns or New York Giants, happily took the former Southern California star with the third overall choice in the NFL draft. When he learned the Giants were taking Saquon Barkley, the Jets' general manager flashed a "I-can't-believe-this-just-happened" look to his right-hand man in the war room, Brian Heimerdinger.
It was one of those moments scouts and personnel dream about.
The Jets scouted Darnold so intensely last season that Maccagnan flew to the West Coast on four consecutive weekends to watch him play, twice returning on red-eye flights immediately after the game so he could watch the Jets on Sunday. From last September to April 15, the day of a secret workout on the Southern California campus, Maccagnan made seven Darnold trips to California. Each time, he left thinking the same thing: We love him, but we'll never get him.
Well, they got him, and they believe he has the potential to develop into their first true franchise quarterback since Joe Namath a half-century ago. Here's a look at how it unfolded:
Oct. 27, 2016: During pregame warm-ups, Maccagnan struck up a conversation with a member of the Southern California coaching staff. Unsolicited, the staff member started gushing about the 19-year-old quarterback who saved their season. The Trojans started 1-2, changed quarterbacks and now they were riding a three-game winning streak with the precocious Darnold in charge. You're going to want this kid in a year or two, the guy told him.
Maccagnan had heard of Darnold, but he really didn't know much about him. Now he was getting an earful from the staffer, who went on and on about Darnold -- how he dominated as the scout-team quarterback and how, upon his promotion, he got the entire team to believe in him in a short period of time.
Scouts live for this kind of intel, so Maccagnan filed it away in his memory bank. He returned to the business at hand, scouting Webb, but he couldn't help notice Darnold that night. He threw five touchdown passes in Southern California's 45-24 victory.
Sept. 2, 2017: This was a busy time in the NFL -- cutdown weekend -- but Maccagnan squeezed in a trip to Los Angeles to watch Darnold in his season opener against Western Michigan. He flew out shortly after completing the blockbuster Sheldon Richardson trade, which netted a second-round pick -- one of three second-rounders they used six months later to trade up to No. 3 overall. Now a national sensation after his epic Rose Bowl performance, Darnold didn't have one of his better games, throwing two interceptions. The Trojans won 49-31.
Sept. 9: Maccagnan returned to Los Angeles to watch Southern California in a prime-time game against Stanford. As usual, he sat in the stands, not the press box, giving him an up-close view of the action. He bought a ticket behind the Southern California bench to observe what can't be seen on TV: player interaction on the bench, body language and body build.
Most talent evaluators prefer the eye-in-the-sky perspective, but Maccagnan believes he can learn more about players from the ground level. Are they one of the guys? How do they handle adversity? On this night, he saw Darnold working the bench, congratulating teammates after big plays and providing energy in his California-cool kind of way. He threw four touchdowns against a tough defense, leading Southern California to a 42-24 win.
Afterward, Maccagnan took a red-eye so he could attend the Jets' season opener in Buffalo.
Sept. 16: With a segment of the Jets' fan base hoping the team would "Suck for Sam," Maccagnan was back at the L.A. Coliseum, scouting Sam. On this night, in a nationally televised thriller against Texas, his affinity for Darnold grew appreciably. The quarterback made clutch play after clutch play, including an improvised jump pass that made the highlight shows. What stood out was how well Darnold read three levels of the defense and how he anticipated throwing windows before they opened.
Darnold rallied the Trojans from a fourth-quarter deficit, pulling out a 27-24 win in double overtime. Afterward, Maccagnan made his way down to the field and stood about 20 feet from Darnold as he was interviewed by a TV reporter. The interview was carried on the stadium's giant screen, so he could hear everything that was said in larger-than-life fashion. The quarterback credited his teammates and talked about how they emphasized clutch situations in practice.
The takeaway: So young, yet so poised.
The GM flew up the coast to Oakland, where the Jets would face the Raiders the next day. By now, after three consecutive Saturdays in La-La Land, Maccagnan was like the famous burger chain.
Sept. 23: Maccagnan was back in the Bay Area, watching Darnold improve to 4-0 with a 30-20 win against Cal. There was no rest for the weary. It was a red-eye back to New Jersey to catch the Jets' home opener against the Dolphins. Mind you, the GM wasn't only focused on Darnold. He also scouted the other top prospects, including four Baker Mayfield games. He had a lot of help, as the Jets' area scouts blanketed the quarterbacks as well.
Nov. 18: With the Jets enjoying their bye, Maccagnan and Heimerdinger, the vice president of player personnel, used the free weekend to scout Darnold and UCLA's Josh Rosen in the most anticipated quarterback matchup of the season. Darnold was outplayed by Rosen, but Southern California won the game 28-23. Afterward, Darnold, hailed as a conquering hero, stood atop a stepladder on the field, brandishing a sword and leading the school's marching band in song.
The Jets got a kick out of that. Rest assured, that scene never will play out at MetLife Stadium, but his future employers liked the way he handled the moment. He never acted like a big shot even though he was.
March 2, 2018: The NFL scouting combine. Finally, the Jets' brass had its first formal meeting with Darnold: the standard 15-minute session at night. Teams call it speed dating because it's hard to get in-depth in just 15 minutes. After pleasantries and small talk, they showed Southern California plays from last season, asking Darnold to break them down conceptually. He didn't blow them away, but it was a solid interview -- a good first date, so to speak. The feeling in the room was how young he appeared in person. He doesn't turn 21 until June 5.
March 21: The Jets dispatched their top decision-makers to Southern California's pro day -- Maccagnan, Heimerdinger, coach Todd Bowles and offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates. By now, the league-wide buzz was that Darnold was going No. 1 to the Browns. In fact, Browns owner Jimmy Haslam was sitting in the stands with Darnold's family in what appeared to be a not-so-subtle message to the quarterback-needy teams in attendance.
Like everyone else, the Jets were impressed by Darnold's performance. In the pouring rain, he "threw the s--- out of it," according to one scout in attendance. The Jets' contingent noticed how Darnold needed only a few warm-up tosses to get ready. Most elite quarterbacks have an elaborate prep period to get loose. Not Darnold. He spent much of the time hanging out with teammates, encouraging them during their drills. When it was his turn, he let it rip, parting the raindrops with soggy footballs that traveled at high velocity.
The Jets' takeaway: This kid exudes cool. But as they left the campus, Maccagnan & Co. lamented what appeared to be a certain fate: We're never going to see him with the third pick.
April 15: After weeks of trying, the Jets finally were able to arrange a private workout with Darnold. Incredibly, it managed to stay a secret until after the draft. It never got reported. Maccagnan, Bowles, Bates and director of college scouting Matt Bazirgan flew to Los Angeles and managed to conduct an early-morning workout on campus. No spectators, no media. Three wide receivers and a tight end ran routes for Darnold, who once again shined. Afterward, they went inside and talked ball for a couple of hours.
Once again, the Jets left campus with a hollow feeling: Was this all for naught?
April 17: Long time, no see. Two days after the private workout, Darnold visited the Jets at their Florham Park, New Jersey, facility. Six team reps, including CEO Christopher Johnson, dined with Darnold at a nearby restaurant. Darnold sat next to Johnson and the conversation flowed throughout the evening. They all had a good laugh when cocktails were ordered, as they realized Darnold still wasn't old enough to drink alcohol.
Darnold spent the next day at the facility. He met with Bowles, Bates, Maccagnan, the trainer and the director of player development. He also bumped into quarterback Josh McCown and they talked for a few minutes. The visit ended in Maccagnan's office. After an exhaustive scouting process, the GM had run out of questions for Darnold. His due diligence was complete. He wished him well and sent him on his way to the airport. Later, Bowles remarked they'd probably never see him again. They weren't optimistic about him falling to them.
April 26: Draft day began with a stunner. Mayfield went first, followed by Barkley. Initially, there was silent disbelief in the Jets' war room, then handshakes and congratulations. Eighteen months after he first set eyes on Darnold, Maccagnan had his man.