Sam Darnold might be here to stay, but, even if the New York Jets are ready to roll with him, their passing questions still persist.
When one analyzes the offseason of a two-win team that’s welcoming in an almost-entirely new coaching regime, it’s hard to truly lament any losses from the prior group. Sure, departures Henry Anderson and Breshad Perriman provided occasional flashes of brilliance, but one look at the 2020 New York Jets would be enough to convince fans that change was coming and should’ve given them ample time to say their goodbyes.
But one of the most recent losses may sting the new edition in unexpected ways.
The Philadelphia Eagles announced on Tuesday that former Jets thrower Joe Flacco will don a new shade of green through a one-year deal. It is widely expected that the Super Bowl XLVII MVP will backup sophomore Jalen Hurts, or at least compete for the role against Nate Sudfeld and Khalil Tate.
On paper, the Flacco departure shouldn’t affect the Jets drastically. The Audubon, NJ native’s lasting metropolitan legacy was likely to appear on endless lists and attempts at Twitter procrastination when fans pejoratively reference a legend of the game’s time in unfamiliar colors (other Jets examples in this phenomenon would include Chris Johnson, Derrick Mason, and Ronnie Lott). Additionally, if incoming receiver Corey Davis is to be believed, Sam Darnold will be the Jets’ starting quarterback come September, eliminating any semblance of a New York quarterback controversy…for now.
Flacco’s departure, however, may be the Jets’ most impactful loss yet.
The importance of a backup quarterback can no longer be denied in the modern NFL. Injuries remain a part of the game and teams have become especially cautious when it comes to high-profile quarterbacks. In each of the last two seasons, for example, only 13 throwers started all 16 of their team’s games. We’ve witnessed backup throwers start…and win…playoff games. The most recent Wild Card Saturday saw John Wolford and Taylor Heinicke line up under center and the football world is only three years removed from watching Nick Foles shock the Patriots in the Super Bowl. Tennessee built a contending squad after a strong safety net, Ryan Tannehill, became their primary option.
Trivial as it seems, this area must be addressed. In New York, the Jets have not had a quarterback start every game in a season since Ryan Fitzpatrick went the whole way in 2015. Darnold has yet to start to a full season and the Jets are 0-10 in his absence, with those games being overseen by Flacco, Josh McCown, Trevor Siemian, and Luke Falk.
While Davis appears confident that Darnold is the Jets’ man for the future, his comments don’t clarify over whether he’ll be the official starting quarterback. National mock drafts continue to place a non-Trevor Lawrence thrower next to the Jets’ slot at No. 2. But it’s hard to imagine the Jets, already cursed with social media notoriety, creating controversy and conflict where there doesn’t have to be. They have enough issues, which include working with a new coaching staff. When there’s finally a light at the end of the tunnel of perpetual rebuilding, it needs to be approaching as cleanly as possible.
Thus, if Davis’ words are to be taken literally, it appears Darnold is the top man. But the backup situation must be addressed and undoubtedly moved up a few pegs on the team’s active offseason priority list (which already needs blocking, secondary, and kicking questions answered).
The current situation
If the Jets stick with Darnold and he’s lost to another medical absence, uncertainty looms in the bottom half of the depth chart. The primary understudy role would probably be a toss-up between James Morgan and Mike White…who have a combined zero NFL regular season passes between them.
The case of Morgan, a mid-major standout from Florida International, is particularly perplexing. His fourth-round drafting made little sense for a team that wound up filling the backup quarterback hole with Flacco shortly after draft weekend. Even as the Jets’ stakes quickly dwindled, to the point they had literally nothing to lose except the top draft pick, Morgan couldn’t even earn a mere activation. New York instead opted to use White, a fifth-round pick in Dallas in 2018, as Flacco’s backup while Darnold recovered. The situation becomes even more bizarre when one looks at the names passed (pun itentended) to add Morgan instead; among them were instant day three contributors like Gabriel Davis and DeeJay Dallas.
It’s hard to fully blame for the predicament. He hasn’t even had the luxury of throwing a down in Jets game jersey thanks to the cancellation of the 2020 preseason. Morgan could well prove himself worth of NFL time sooner or later, but the Jets must, at the very least, create a competition for the spot, especially if they’re keeping Darnold.
What the Jets need in a backup
- Mentorship: What Darnold needs at this point in time of his NFL career is stability and guidance. The closest he’s looked to having his NFL act together came at the end of his rookie season, when he put up a 99.1 passer rating (64 percent completion rate, 6 touchdowns, 1 interception). Darnold credited the surge in production to “watching Josh (McCown)” while he was injured. Having a de facto coach who also wears a jersey could be big for Darnold as he enters the all-important fourth year on an NFL roster.
- Experience: Abstaining from drafting another quarterback if Darnold is kept would limit potentially negative attention. But if the Jets want someone to keep them afloat if Darnold is lost once again, they would be much better trusting someone used to the weight of NFL starterhood rather than entrusting an emergency situation to a day three choice. Several ex-starters who would probably be better suited for backup duties remain on the free agent market, including Blaine Gabbert from the Super Bowl champions in Tampa Bay and San Francisco passer Nick Mullens, who has worked with incoming coaches Robert Saleh and Mike LaFleur.
- That Championship Feeling: The Jets would be wise to seek someone whose has experienced the passing highs the NFL has had to offer. For example, Blake Bortles, most recently a member of the Los Angeles Rams, was starting in an AFC title game three seasons ago. Enough can’t be written about Alex Smith’s inspiring NFL journey. These throwers, amongst others, can provide the Jets some assurance and security in case the unthinkable happens to Darnold yet again, while providing him some off-the-field skills to learn as well.
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags