<
>

Josh McCown's role will be critical in Sam Darnold's development

Josh McCown is making $10 million to be Sam Darnold's backup. But McCown could be the perfect mentor for the rookie quarterback. Joshua Sarner/Icon Sportswire

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Day after day in training camp, when the quarterbacks met to review practice and game video, Josh McCown's eyes told him what his heart knew on April 26:

His days as an NFL starting quarterback were coming to an end.

That night, the New York Jets selected Sam Darnold with the third pick in the draft. High draft choices usually don't start out on the bench, and Darnold did nothing this summer that made McCown think the kid couldn't handle the job.

"You watch the tape and you see the progress he was making, and that was the key," McCown said Tuesday, commenting for the first time on coach Todd Bowles' decision to name Darnold the starter. "Did he get to a point where we felt like he was playing good football and was ready to take it on? I think he showed that."

McCown graciously accepted defeat in the competition and will slide into his role as the highest-paid backup in the league, a $10 million resource who will be invaluable in Darnold's development. McCown's role can't be overstated. He'll be the mentor so many young quarterbacks in the Jets' past never had.

In 2009, highly touted rookie Mark Sanchez beat Kellen Clemens, a young veteran who still had the ambition to be a starter. Their relationship was once described to me as "awkward."

The following year, Clemens was replaced by graybeard Mark Brunell, who became a surrogate big brother to Sanchez. Not coincidentally, Sanchez enjoyed his best season. Tim Tebow's arrival in 2012 made a mess of everything, creating extreme tension in the quarterbacks room and probably contributing to Sanchez's demise.

In 2014, Geno Smith was handed the starting job as a rookie, but he didn't have anyone to lean on because his backup was fellow neophyte Matt Simms. The Smith-Ryan Fitzpatrick dynamic in 2015 and 2016 was weird because of how Fitzpatrick got the job: I.K. Enemkpali's sucker punch that broke Smith's jaw.

McCown jumped on the merry-go-round last season, but he spent most of his time playing, not mentoring, because he was the best quarterback on the team. Christian Hackenberg and Bryce Petty were attentive mentees; they just couldn't play the position at an NFL level.

This year, McCown goes from lead actor to a supporting role. He's one of the most unselfish players the Jets have had, and he'll give everything he has to Darnold, who has a chance to be special. Players joke about how McCown and Darnold are inseparable in the building. The old sage, 39, is teaching the young gunslinger, 21, how it's done.

"Josh is the best, for what he's been able to do for me," Darnold said. "These past couple of months have been amazing. Words really can't describe what he's been able to do for me."

McCown has a daughter only a few months younger than Darnold. So, yes, there's a considerable generation gap in the quarterback room. It has led to some funny moments, especially when pop culture is discussed. McCown doesn't understand some of Darnold's references and vice versa.

"It keeps me young, and I always like it because it keeps me in tune with my kids," McCown said, smiling. "It helps me understand what they're doing."

This is a big part of why the Jets re-signed McCown. He proved last season he can play and lead at a high level, winning over the locker room with his smarts and upbeat personality. His new challenge is to step in the shadows, realizing he is no longer the primary leader. He knows he must defer to Darnold, letting the rookie's leadership emerge in an organic fashion.

On some teams, this would create a toxic atmosphere. The Jets don't have to worry about that. McCown has Darnold's back.