FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Six months ago -- on St. Patrick's Day, to be exact -- the New York Jets made the franchise-altering trade that yielded Sam Darnold. It was a good trade at the time, bold and smart, and it has improved with age. Sure, they needed some Irish luck on draft day, but they ultimately landed their No. 1-rated quarterback. Despite some rough moments, he's everything the organization envisioned.
The Jets can thank the Indianapolis Colts, their trading partner. They paved the Jets' road to Darnold, and now the Colts have to face him Sunday at MetLife Stadium.
"First and foremost, one of the first observations is he just looks like the real deal,” Colts coach Frank Reich said Wednesday on a conference call with New York reporters. “I love his body language. I like the energy I see from him on the field. He just looks like he belongs. It’s funny, you see certain quarterbacks, they just have a look and feel to them on the field, and I think you see that in Sam.”
If it weren't for the Colts, the Jets almost certainly would've missed out on Darnold. The choice probably would have been Josh Rosen if they had kept the sixth overall pick. Rosen might turn out to be better than Darnold -- who knows? -- but general manager Mike Maccagnan wanted to improve his position. Instead of sitting back and letting the draft determine the Jets' quarterback of the future, he was proactive, dealing three second-round picks to move up three spots.
It was a steep price, but Maccagnan was under pressure to come up with a quarterback in the offseason.
The Colts were the ideal partner because they already have a quarterback, Andrew Luck, and they were looking to trade down to stockpile extra draft picks. The Jets have a good relationship with the Colts' front office, and they were able to hammer out the trade after getting blown off by Kirk Cousins in free agency. They never expected Darnold to fall to No. 3 so, yeah, they caught a huge break. But as baseball immortal Branch Rickey used to say, "Luck is the residue of design."
The Jets have no regrets. Darnold isn't having a great year on the stat sheet -- his 77.2 passer rating ranks 31st out of 35 quarterbacks -- but he's making progress on a weekly basis. Everybody saw the home run throws in last Sunday's victory over the Denver Broncos, but there also were nuanced improvements in his game. Afterward, he talked about his "quiet feet," meaning he felt more under control in the pocket than in previous games.
On Wednesday, coach Todd Bowles praised Darnold for his "growth and comfort and involving himself in the offense. It's slowing down for him. He's seeing the field better."
Darnold has a long way to go. He already has six interceptions, plus another four would-be interceptions that were dropped -- a league high, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Stats aside, anybody with a modicum of football knowledge can recognize his upside. Reich said Darnold reminds him of Carson Wentz, whom he coached with the Philadelphia Eagles.
"It feels like a little bit of the same personality," Reich said. "It’s not too big from the standpoint of intellectually, but also emotionally, the game’s not too big. Physically, just being able to make the throws, and some of the athleticism. I haven’t evaluated Sam’s athleticism compared to someone like Carson or Andrew, but you see he’s making good plays with his feet. That, honestly, surprised me a little bit. I didn’t know he was as good of an athlete, running the ball as well.”
Thanks to a draft-day trade with the Eagles, the Colts parlayed the two 2018 second-round picks from the Jets into three players -- starting guard/tackle Braden Smith, outside linebacker Kemoko Turay (two sacks) and running back Jordan Wilkins (team-high 175 yards). With Smith and first-round guard Quenton Nelson, they should have two cornerstones on the offensive line -- good news for Luck and his surgically repaired shoulder. Don't forget, the Colts still own the Jets' 2019 second-rounder.
If Darnold leads the Jets to a Super Bowl, it will go down as one of the best trades in franchise history. It'll never surpass the Joe Namath trade in 1965, when they traded up in the AFL draft and outbid the rival NFL for his services. Namath made the Jets and changed the landscape of professional football, leading their upset of the NFL's Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III.
Namath and his teammates will be honored Sunday on the 50th reunion of the Jets' only championship team. That the Colts are the opponent is only fitting. They always will be linked to Namath.
And Darnold, too, especially if he can end the interminable Super Bowl drought.