For the umpteenth year in a row, the New York Jets are looking for a quarterback…don’t worry, it’s not what you think.
The metropolitan area has had to deal with a lot of changes over the past few weeks. One thing that has remained constant is the New York Jets’ need to add a quarterback.
You’ve probably stopped reading at this point and have ventured to Twitter to send a comment, one probably peppered with unmentionables. If you’re still here, thank you for your patience. Sam Darnold, barring disaster, is still the Jets’ franchise man moving forward. More is needed to truly entrench himself into the green culture for the next decade, but he is, bar none, the Jets’ greatest hope under center in a long, long time.
But to save their quarterback, the Jets must look to improve at the position. This offseason has already seen plenty of change, primarily in the department of keeping Darnold safe. A majority of the spring budget has been dedicated to newcomers George Fant and Connor McGovern and the return of guard Alex Lewis.
Backup quarterback, however, must be toward the penthouse in terms of the team’s remaining needs.
The position of the backup quarterback is the literal life insurance of football. You hope you never need it. But if the time comes, it must keep you alive and it must provide benefits.
New York had a guy like that in the form of a colorful character. He was no Mayhem or Aflac Duck, but Josh McCown made a career of being the quintessential NFL backup. Against all odds, he built a professional football tenure that could well reach two decades. McCown’s most impactful stop was his tenure with the Jets. In the grand scheme of the football archives, his two-year term could be easily forgotten. But McCown not only created a home in the story of a literal journeyman, but he also carved a permanent place for himself in the annals of Jets history.
McCown entered New York as a stopgap. It was clear that neither Bryce Petty or Christian Hackenberg was going to be the man of the future, so McCown commandeered the 2017 starting quarterback position. Against monumental odds, McCown put five victories on the Jets’ ledger in a year that USA Today predicted that a goose egg would be in their win column. He posted the best numbers of his career (2,926 yards, 18 touchdowns) and kept the Jets competitive. McCown posted a 5-8 record as a starter, but six of those defeats came by a single-digit margin.
Even with the unexpected success and an invite back, McCown was never expected to be the Jets’ man beyond that year. That obvious point was solidified with a trade up from the sixth to the third pick of the 2018 NFL Draft. You know by now that the pick was used on Darnold. But McCown still played a major role: mentor.
Darnold’s first NFL activities were done under McCown’s watch. The rookie immediately went over McCown’s wing, learning the ins and outs of professional football from the seasoned thrower. McCown was kept aboard as Darnold’s primary backup, allowing their relationship to continue into the regular season So strong did their chemistry become that they nearly broke the internet with synchronized hair flipping.
An injury to Darnold pressed McCown back into the starting role. When Darnold returned in December for the season’s final quarter, he capped off his debut year on a good note to the tune of 931 yards, six touchdowns, and a passer rating of 99.1.
Asked what the key to that success was, Darnold knew exactly who to thank.
â€œI really do just think it was just watching Josh,â€ Darnold said in December 2018. â€œJust the way he went about studying the plays that are in the game plan, itâ€™s literally everything, walkthrough, practice, how he treated everything. I think it was just awesome to be able to learn and watch him.”
The Jets need someone like that behind Darnold once more.
It’s not optimal for the Jets to have a quarterback room where Darnold is the elder statesman. He has enough to worry about in the unenviable role of Jets franchise quarterback, where the simplest flaw can cause a derailment. A quarterback who has been there before, to know what Darnold is going through, would help him fulfill the potential the Jets saw with the third overall pick.
Additionally, returning to the insurance comparison, the Jets must ensure that the loss of Darnold is not a death sentence. The Jets have played six games without Darnold over the past two years due to injuries or illness, losing each by typically one-sided margins. Promising seasons across the NFL have sunk due to the inability to prepare for disaster. The Pittsburgh Steelers were the unfortunate victims last season, as a combination of Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges wasn’t enough to push a resilient effort into the playoffs after Ben Roethlisberger went down early on.
If anyone knows about the importance of a backup quarterback, it’s Jets general manager Joe Douglas. Nick Foles failed to pan out as the Philadelphia Eagles’ long-term starter, but that didn’t stop Douglas and Eagles GM Howie Roseman from bringing him back in the mentor/backup role behind Carson Wentz. When Wentz was lost to injury in December, Foles wound up taking the team to its elusive first Super Bowl title. Further proof of the backup value was on display across the league. Where the Steelers failed, the Saints (Teddy Bridgewater/Taysom Hill), Titans (Ryan Tannehill), and modern Super Bowl champion Chiefs (Matt Moore) were able to succeed despite losing their starter.
With the Jets inching back toward respectability, having a reliable backup is more important than ever. Questions about contention can reign when it comes to the Jets’ MetLife Stadium co-tenants, but the New York Giants fulfilled a perfect requirement in their recent addition of Colt McCoy. The former starter in Cleveland can serve as a mentor to their own future leader, Daniel Jones, and is capable of keeping the team afloat in case of emergency.
Choosing one will be a delicate process. The Jets had the right idea in bringing in Trevor Siemian last season. Siemian was serviceable enough as a starter in Denver and had the right experience, but his Jets career ended almost as soon as it began, wiped out by a scary injury in his first relief appearance for Darnold.
What this process needs is the type of quarterback who can mentor Darnold but not cause a panic if he does succeed. The last thing the Jets need is a long-term quarterback controversy, which leaves the possibility of drafting a backup out. Fortunately, the free agency pool is deep with experience and efficiency.
The ideal choice in this process would perhaps be the aforementioned Moore. Not only does he bring the perfect goods…13 seasons, 32 starts, and a Super Bowl ring…he has also worked in the systems of head coach Adam Gase and offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains. It was, in fact, Moore who started Gase’s only postseason game to date, overseeing a rare Miami Dolphins playoff trip when Tannehill went down in 2016-17. During his substitute work for Patrick Mahomes this season, Moore’s yardage as a starter outpaced Kirk Cousins, Deshaun Watson, Aaron Rodgers, and Darnold himself in those couple of weeks. He also posted a passer rating of 105.5 in that two-week span.
If the Jets miss out on Moore, perhaps the recently released Joe Flacco can make the mentorship of Darnold his final NFL project before retirement. Flacco, 35, was meant to be a stopgap for Drew Lock and was bid farewell this week after fulfilling that purpose. Former AFC finalist Blake Bortles is also an option, or McCown himself could come back if he’s looking to play another year. McCown finally added NFL playoff snaps to his resume last year as a member of the Eagles.
Whatever happens, the Jets need to pounce on this opportunity. The fragile mind of a young quarterback anointed as the franchise savior is a terrible thing to waste. Thus, it must be placed in the most stable hands possible. Such assistance doesn’t have to come entirely from the coaching staff.
Every great hero of New York lore has been aided by a mentor. Daredevil had Stick. The Ninja Turtles had Splinter.
Darnold just needs a backup.
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags