A few days after his team drafted quarterback Sam Darnold No. 3 overall in 2018, New York Jets CEO Christopher Johnson was still on Cloud 14. Speaking at a charity function, he told reporters that it would be remembered as a franchise-altering decision.
"I honestly think they're going to look back 20 years from now and say that this is the moment that the Jets shifted into a new gear, that they became a great team," said the understated Johnson, not known as a headline-maker.
News flash: The Jets (0-1) are not a great team. They aren't even mediocre.
They're 11-22 in the Darnold era, a 33-game span in which their offense has produced the fewest yards in the NFL. His performance in the Week 1 loss at Buffalo was eye-opening in that there were at least a half-dozen self-inflicted mistakes, which sent the fan base into a state of chaos (correction: a deeper state of chaos than usual).
For the Jets, was it just a bad day at the office, or was it an alarming harbinger?
If it's the latter -- if the marriage between Darnold and coach Adam Gase ultimately fails -- the foundation on which the franchise is built will be broken and worthless. It's all about the quarterback and his coach. That's the way Johnson wanted it last season, when he made the unorthodox decision to pair Gase -- a losing coach with the division-rival Miami Dolphins -- with his young prodigy.
If the team continues to sputter, the Jets will be forced to confront a question that right now is too uncomfortable for them to consider: Draft another quarterback?
The Jets don't want to be in that position, drafting so high that Clemson star Trevor Lawrence -- or another top quarterback prospect -- is a viable option. They still believe in Darnold, who has a $4.6 million guarantee in 2021 and a potential $25 million guarantee in 2022 (estimated amount of his fifth-year option). They love his work ethic and leadership traits. Although there's some concern about persistent mechanical flaws, they're confident that talent will prevail -- and he has a lot of natural ability.
But after 27 starts by Darnold, who is 11-16 with 37 touchdowns and 29 interceptions, can the Jets say definitively that he is their long-term future? No, not yet. He's still an inconsistent quarterback.
If they have to tear it down, with a new coach or new quarterback or both, it will set the Jets back years -- an all-too-familiar path for this star-crossed franchise.
Here's the scariest part: It will be difficult to get an accurate read on Darnold because his supporting cast, suspect under ideal circumstances, is getting weaker by the week. On Tuesday, the Jets placed running back Le'Veon Bell on injured reserve, which means he will be out for at least three games. No offense to Frank Gore, 37, one of the sport's all-time tough guys, but his days as a lead back are over. He can get you through a game or two, but a month? That's asking a lot.
Unlike fellow Class of '18 quarterbacks Lamar Jackson (Baltimore Ravens) and Josh Allen (Buffalo Bills), Darnold doesn't have a strong infrastructure to help his development. In some ways, he's on his own, surrounded by a new offensive line and a patchwork cast of skill players. Not only that but Gase's playcalling doesn't accentuate his strengths, which are playing with tempo and making throws outside the pocket.
"I just have to get him more in rhythm early in the game," Gase said, alluding to Darnold's 1-for-7 start, which contributed to three three-and-outs in the team's Week 1 loss.
Playcalling and supporting cast aside, Darnold needs to be better with his fundamentals (namely, footwork) and his decision-making. He made several poor plays against a good Bills defense, none worse than his out-of-bounds sack at the end of the third quarter. That is the one that left NFL observers shaking their heads.
Down 21-10 with a chance to get back in the game, Darnold was flushed to his right. Wide receiver Jamison Crowder was wide-open along the right sideline, 25 yards downfield -- about 5 yards beyond his man. It should've been an easy pitch-and-catch, one that could've gone for a long touchdown. Darnold was looking in that direction, yet he inexplicably held the ball and got tackled in front of his stunned coach on the sideline.
.@nyjets just have to be better than this. This is a "gimme" Please tell me why Sam or any other QB wouldn't make this throw? This should be a 21-17 game going into the 4th! #BaldysBreakdowns pic.twitter.com/V0kGD6XAfh— Brian Baldinger (@BaldyNFL) September 14, 2020
Once he decided that Crowder was a no-go, Darnold should have thrown the ball away. That's Game Management 101.
"Inexcusable," Darnold said after the game.
Darnold is not a rookie anymore -- he has played more than 1,600 snaps in the NFL -- so his lack of awareness Sunday was confounding. It happened on his interception, too. Flushed to his left, with a chance to run for a first down, he threw an against-the-grain floater to the middle of the field, violating one of the cardinal rules of quarterbacking. It was a jump ball to the 5-foot-9 Crowder, the smallest player on the field.
He didn't make excuses -- he never does -- and that's an admirable trait.
"My timing needs to be better," Darnold said. "I think I did hurry some things. I feel like just at the beginning of a game, I've just got to relax and take a deep breath, ease myself into it and make the throws when they're there."
Technically speaking, Darnold said he needs to quiet his feet and make sure his feet are tied to his eyes. That, he believes, will improve his accuracy. This was a point of emphasis in the offseason, when he worked with his personal coach, Jordan Palmer, in Southern California.
Quite frankly, his footwork has been an issue since his final year at USC, where he was plagued by turnovers. Darnold doesn't have textbook mechanics, but he has an innate ability to go off-script and make "wow" plays. That's his most endearing quality. Former NFL quarterback and ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky, an unabashed Darnold supporter, calls it "magical sloppiness." But there has to be a delicate balance. Even a gunslinger needs to follow the manual.
Darnold might have been out of sorts Sunday because it was his first game this season. He really needed the preseason, especially with new players around him. His imperfections -- inconsistent footwork, lapses in accuracy, etc. -- were exacerbated by the rust. He should be better Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers (1 p.m. ET, Fox), but you have to wonder if the makeshift offense can handle such a good defensive team.
"They're fixable," Darnold said of his issues.
If his regression becomes the narrative of the season, whether it's his fault or organizational failure, the Jets will be confronted with an inconvenient reality.