Forty years ago, Joe Namath played his final game with the New York Jets. He was benched after throwing four interceptions and posting a 0.0 passer rating, yet fans chanted, "We want Joe!" in the waning minutes of a 42-3 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. They wanted one last glimpse before closing an era. Maybe they knew it never would be the same.
The Jets went from Namath to Richard Todd to Ken O'Brien to Browning Nagle to Boomer Esiason to Neil O'Donnell to Vinny Testaverde to Chad Pennington to Brett Favre to Mark Sanchez to Geno Smith to Ryan Fitzpatrick to ... who the heck knows?
There have been pockets of success over the decades, but many of the aforementioned quarterbacks were too old, too injury-prone or habitual interception throwers to provide lasting impact. The Jets have no Super Bowl championships and only two division titles in the post-Namath era, still searching for that elusive franchise quarterback. Still waiting for that second cup of Joe.
Is this the year they find him? Will Paxton Lynch become the new golden boy? If they anoint him, will someone they deemed a lesser prospect become the next Dan Marino, recreating the O'Brien-Marino oopsie from 1983?
On Thursday night, the temptation will be great to pick a quarterback at 20. Advice to the Jets: Resist the urge.
Lynch is intriguing because he looks the part, 6-foot-6 with an arm like Noah Syndergaard, but there are enough questions about his mental makeup that make you wonder if he could succeed in the crucible of the New York market. He reportedly scored an 18 on his Wonderlic intelligence test, below average for a quarterback. It goes deeper than that, though. Some teams have concerns about his maturity and ability to handle the cerebral nature of the position.
"Processing information and reading defenses could take a while," said an AFC personnel director, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "He's not a plug-and-play player."
The Jets can afford to be patient, but they already have two projects on the roster, Smith and Bryce Petty. They don't need another; they're not "Projects R Us." Lynch is too boom-or-bust to take a chance in the first round. He's widely regarded as the third-best prospect in what general manager Mike Maccagnan called an "average" quarterback class. Late information, gathered from people familiar with the Jets' plans, indicates they will pass on him. A better possibility is Penn State's Christian Hackenberg, perhaps on Day 2.
The draft has turned into "Groundhog Day" for the Jets, who emerge almost every winter and see Namath's long shadow hovering over the franchise. Since 2000, they've drafted 10 quarterbacks, more than any team in the league. Yes, even more than the Cleveland Browns, which is saying something.
"Since they've drafted so many, I don't want to break the streak," Maccagnan joked, commenting on whether he's planning to make it 11 in 17 years.
This is no laughing matter for a fan base that has endured 15 years of torture from a former sixth-round pick, Tom Brady. Other teams can find franchise quarterbacks in the draft -- owner Woody Johnson recently lamented how his scouts whiffed on Russell Wilson in 2012 -- but the Jets never get the golden ticket in their candy bar.
If you're not in the top 10, it's hard to find an elite quarterback. From 2000 to 2015, 16 were chosen between 12 and 32, nearly all of them busts. Only two emerged as legitimate franchise players -- Aaron Rodgers and Joe Flacco. Teddy Bridgewater still has a chance. Generally speaking, signal-callers picked outside the top 12 are overdrafted because of the insane supply and demand at the position.
The Jets have tried everything to solve the quarterback riddle.
It started in 1976, when they re-visited Namath's old turf, Alabama, to draft his successor. That left them crimson-faced, as Todd's signature moments occurred in the Mud Bowl (A.J. Duhe!) and his own locker room, when he pushed a reporter into a locker.
They tapped into small schools, plucking O'Brien (Cal-Davis) and Pennington (Marshall). They tried the big-school route with Sanchez (USC). Each one went to the playoffs in his first year as a starter, fueling temporary excitement.
They traded for former league MVPs Esiason (1993) and Favre (2008), hoping they could recapture past glory.
They tried to buy quarterback stability, doling out big free-agent bucks for O'Donnell, who suffered a season-ending calf injury in pregame warmups (yes, the warmups) and ended his two-year New York run in Bill Parcells' dog house.
They brought home Testaverde, a native New Yorker who reinvented himself at 35 and delivered one of the greatest passing seasons in franchise history. He got old (er, older) and yielded to Pennington, who was compared to a young Joe Montana until he wrecked his shoulder -- not even the most infamous of their quarterback injuries.
Hint: Geno Smith. Punch. Broken jaw.
Forty years and counting.