The New York Jets have decisions to make at quarterback. A stopgap can provide welcome stability if they move on from Sam Darnold.
Well-meaning parents who purchased their children New York Jets jerseys bearing Trevor Lawrence’s name for the December holidays have some explaining to do.
The Jets’ endeavor for Trevor is more than likely over after Sunday, as a combination of a New York win and the Jacksonville Jaguars’ 14th consecutive defeat sent the top overall pick in this spring’s draft to Duval County. Considering the Jaguars (1-14) opted to play Mike Glennon in place of Gardner Minshew for their 41-17 defeat at the hands of the Chicago Bears, it’s more or less assured that they’re planning to select the Clemson thrower set to partake in the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Sugar Bowl on Friday night (8 p.m. ET, ESPN).
Even if the Jets (2-13) landed the top overall choice…a scenario rendered impossible by their pair of December wins and the strength of schedule tiebreaker…there was going to be debate over whether they should use it on Lawrence or entrust another year to incumbent starter Sam Darnold. With nearly three stanzas completed, the narrative of Darnold’s New York saga is a complicated one. It has been defined by the occasional flash of brilliance too often countered with head-scratching decisions on the field. The story has also been interrupted by calamities that are either an unfortunate part of the game (injuries) or something most go quarterbacks go through their whole career without seeing (mononucleosis). Missing four games with a shoulder ailment hasn’t helped, but Darnold is on pace to set new career lows in most major passing categories, including yards (currently at 1,942) and touchdown passes (8).
Countless amounts of turnover have like played a role in Darnold’s lack of progress. His crucial developmental years have been staged in not only the Todd Bowles-to-Adam Gase staff transition, but the general manager swap from Mike Maccagnan to Joe Douglas. Nothing drives the point of unstable turnover than the fact that no receiver (with the exception of tight end Chris Herndon) from Darnold’s rookie campaign (2018) remains on the current Jets’ roster. The Jets may be ready to make yet another coaching change with Gase’s win percentage (.290) besting only Rich Kotite amongst green head coaches with at least one full year at the helm.
Tempting as it may be to see what Darnold could do with a new coaching staff (provided Gase is indeed dealt his walking papers), a legal separation, one perhaps involving a trade for draft picks, may be the best for all parties involved. The Jets don’t have time to help pen anyone else’s redemption story…they’ve spent a decade trying to write their own…and Darnold deserves a place that isn’t relying on him to be a one-size-fits-all solution.
If 2020 has proven anything, it’s that the Jets are far removed from being “a quarterback away’ from mere relevancy, much less the Super Bowl. This is a team with many needs, and it’s not fair to Darnold, Lawrence, or an unknown, young third party to expect them to be the savior sought since Joe Namath hung up his green and white paraphernalia for the last time. Even if the Jets are poised to miss out on Lawrence, the 2021 draft has provided solid consolation prizes in the form of Justin Fields, Zach Wilson, Trey Lance, and Kyle Trask.
But what if the Jets took a year off from the franchise quarterback process?
Such a concept has been on the rise in recent years, the phenomenon informally labeled as using a “stopgap” quarterback. Through this endeavor, a talented quarterback helps the team in question keep rolling while other needs are addressed and developed.
The stopgap, as his name implies, is not meant to be the starter for any extended period of time. Rather, they arise out of necessity or in case of emergency. Oftentimes, the stopgap is called upon to clean up the mess or void a retired or departing franchise quarterback left behind. Modern examples on the 2020 circuit include Phillip Rivers in Indianapolis and Cam Newton in New England. Sometines, the stopgap manages to extend his stay. Modern Tom Brady could arguably be seen as a stopgap in Tampa Bay, as the Buccaneers sought his services to capitalize on a strong team around him in plans to make the most of a window of contentions. The Tennessee Titans perhaps envisioned Ryan Tannehill, fresh off a polarizing stint as Miami’s franchise man, as a temporary solution when they pulled the plug on the Marcus Mariota experiment. Tannehill helped guide the Titans to a pair of surprise playoffs wins and was rewarded with the Comeback Player of the Year Award and a four-extension.
A similar plan could work out for the Jets, a team working on a playoff game drought that’s older than all but two movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The most important thing the Jets need right now is stability. They’re a team venturing off the football rails, where even a mere winning record has proven elusive. This is a squad that needs to get back to a place where a win isn’t the worst thing that can happen to the franchise, as many have declared after the Jets stole wins from playoff contenders in Los Angeles and Cleveland. This isn’t a scenario like the Indianapolis Colts had in 2012, when Andrew Luck turned a two-win squad into a playoff team. The Jets don’t have a plethora of reliable veterans to help the kid, unlike Indianapolis’ haul of Reggie Wayne, Dwight Freeney, and Adam Vinatieri, among others.
There’s a light at the end of the green tunnel in the form of 2021 cap space. The Jets’ offseason bank currently stands at just over $81 million, once again trailing only Jacksonville. This season, particularly a strong December, has yielded some potential building blocks (Mekhi Becton, Denzel Mims, Quinnen Williams, Marcus Maye among them), but the Jets are far from a completed project. They still need blocking and weaponry on offense while the defense needs help in the secondary. The pass rush also needs to be bolstered with matchups against Josh Allen on the horizon for the next decade, and their kicking situation needs clarity. It’s not fair to waste further development on Darnold on a situation like this, nor is this any condition in which to subject a top overall pick. As the Jets try to find their footing, a stopgap man could work wonders. A short-term deal is feasible in this cap space surplus, filling one need while diverting attention to more long-term goals. Draft picks obtained from a potential trade of Darnold can be used to net weaponry that can be overseen by a proven throwing option.
Whereas the draft class may loaded with franchise potential, 2021’s free agency class is laden with stopgap potential. Jacoby Brissett had a strong showing in filling the gap between Luck and Rivers last season and would potentially seek a new chance to return to starting duties. Andy Dalton has kept the Dallas Cowboys in contention for the NFC East title since taking over for the injured Dak Prescott. The Jets may even have a stopgap option on their roster in the form of Joe Flacco. Super Bowl XLVII’s MVP may be facing the twilight of his career, but showed that he did have some gas left in the tank while filling in for an injured Darnold earlier this season.
The Jets’ most recent glory days…or the closest thing resembling them in this dreary decade…have come with stopgap guys under center. Ryan Fitzpatrick’s 2015 season appears at or near the top of nearly every single-season passing record in the Jets’ record book. Fitzpatrick (as well as fellow free-agent-to-be Tyrod Taylor, who helped end the Buffalo Bills’ eternal playoff drought before Josh Allen arrived) has nearly made a career out of the concept and currently serves in such a capacity in Miami on a part-time basis as they bide their time with Tua Tagovailoa.
Two years later, Josh McCown kept the Jets competitive in a year some expected them to go winless. The final ledger read 5-11, but McCown’s brief restablization kept them in ball games.
Of course, the Jets have plenty of time to rectify their current surroundings to make them more desireable to an incoming franchise quarterback. If offseason funds are spent wisely (i.e. adding a strong receiving talent like Allen Robinson or JuJu Smith-Schuster), the idea of a stopgap man could seem almost laughable. For all we know, Darnold could emerge to pilot his fourth straight kickoff weekend for the Jets, hopefully one packed to the brim with fans this time around. But the stopgap conversation is one the Jets shouldn’t ignore this offseason.
Whatever the Jets have been trying in the franchise quarterback department, it’s clearly not working. Maybe some change would do them some good…if only temporarily.
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags