Can Daniel Jones or Sam Darnold Become New York's Next Great Quarterback?

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterNovember 7, 2019

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Sam Darnold and Daniel Jones have a chance to make history when the Jets and Giants square off Sunday.

Stop laughing. We're absolutely serious.

Ignore the teams' records and the recent headlines about them for a moment and look at the big picture: Two promising young quarterbacks will go head-to-head to be The Guy in New York. That's something that has never happened before. Danny Dimes vs. The Samchise I: Winner gets to inherit a mantle held by Joe Namath, Phil Simms and Eli Manning. Heck, someday you might tell your grandkids about Sunday's game.

If the Jets and Giants don't destroy their young quarterbacks through sheer incompetence, that is. And if Darnold and Jones don't wilt under a Big Apple spotlight that is already exposing all their weaknesses to the whole world.

Those are two colossal "ifs." But while the NFL insiders Bleacher Report talked to may be skeptical of how the Jets and Giants are handling their young franchise quarterbacks, they remain optimistic about how the quarterbacks are handling themselves.

"The Giants and Jets have what they need," says QB expert Jordan Palmer. "They have the centerpiece: talented young quarterbacks who can handle New York.

"Now it's on the teams to build around them."

Those teams had better hurry. Because right now both franchises are heading in the wrong direction, and they are taking their quarterbacks with them.

          

Force ghosts 

Playing in New York can make a young quarterback see ghosts.

You no doubt recall Darnold's public humiliation against the Patriots on Monday Night Football a few weeks ago: four interceptions, a 33-0 defeat and Darnold's nationally broadcast sideline admission that the Patriots pass rush left him "seeing ghosts." 

"Thirteen million people saw him as vulnerable as you could see an NFL quarterback," a former NFL player close to the situation told Bleacher Report. "He basically told America, 'I have no idea what I'm seeing right now.'"

It was the kind of moment that can be difficult to bounce back from. Yet experts we spoke to for this article were impressed with how Darnold handled the "ghosts" fallout. He owned up to the comments without dwelling on them. He changed the conversation and tamped down the mini-controversy. Those are skills that can make or break a quarterback, especially in the Big Apple.

"New York is a force multiplier," says former Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum, who helped bring everyone from Chad Pennington to Brett Favre to Mark Sanchez to New York. "When things are good, they're really good. But the bumps in the road are bigger than they would be in other places. A player has to be able to withstand criticism.

"Darnold's presence and demeanor are excellent. That's going to serve him well." 

The former player agrees that playing in New York is different than playing anywhere else. "In other markets, you can go back and forth with a local beat writer," he says, perhaps referring to a different second-year quarterback who isn't handling pressure very well. "In New York, you're not going to win that, because the Post will put you on the back page every day."

Darnold will need all the confidence and media savvy he can muster to get through this season, because things are somehow getting worse for him and the Jets (a remarkable feat, considering that Darnold's season has already featured a monthlong bout with mono). The team has lost three straight games, most recently to the stinking-for-Moneyball-reasons Dolphins. Trade-deadline dramas may have taken their toll on the team's on-field effort. Darnold appears to be developing some bad habits. Head coach Adam Gase is already the subject of "hot seat" speculation from that pesky, feisty New York media.

Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

Several observers expressed major off-the-record concerns about Gase's handling of Darnold—and the Jets as a whole—which should sound familiar to anyone who follows the team. Two different former players questioned why Gase hasn't given Darnold more hot routes, max-protect packages or other scaffolding to make life more manageable behind a terrible line. A former coach questioned why Le'Veon Bell was being used as a battering ram instead of an all-purpose weapon.

While everyone agreed that the Jamal Adams trade-deadline saga was overblown (again: New York force multiplier), no one argued that Gase is handling the locker room well.

Baptisms-under-fire like the Monday Night Ghost Story could ultimately benefit Darnold. The lack of hand-holding could push him to become a better decision-maker. Adversity can bring a young nucleus together, assuming that nucleus doesn't disappear on a trade-deadline whim. 

It's just getting harder each week to give Darnold the benefit of the doubt, because it's almost impossible to give the Jets the benefit of the doubt. Especially when compared to their relatively more successful MetLife Stadium roommates, who have both a better track record of success and are better at avoiding self-inflicted controversies. 

"One of these teams has won two Super Bowls in the last few years, and one of them hasn't," Palmer says. "The one that hasn't has its work cut out for them."

                    

Little Manning

Jones may have a lot to learn as a quarterback, but he has already mastered the art of dealing with the New York media.

Standing about three feet from the spot where Manning delivered 232 midweek starting-quarterback press conferences, surrounded by reporters and cameras last Thursday, Jones spouts boilerplate about "finding a way to win games" and teammates "stepping up" in the wake of injuries. He shrugs off numerous attempts to add sizzle to the upcoming Cowboys game (Dallas prevailed 37-18, aided by three Jones turnovers) and questions about how he's handling the limelight ("It doesn't change a whole lot"), and jokes around with reporters who ask about Halloween costumes and trash-talking defenders. The rookie quarterback is politely dull and affably uninformative, exactly like his famous predecessor. 

TAMPA, FL - SEPTEMBER 22: Quarterback Daniel Jones #8 of the New York Giants answers questions during the Post Press Conferencs fron the media after the game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium on September 22, 2019 in Tampa, Florida
Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

That the mood around Jones remains upbeat and jovial is nothing short of a New York miracle. 

Jones was one of the most lambasted draft selections in recent memory; The New York Post headline the day after the Giants made him the sixth overall pick read "Blue's Clueless." But Jones arrived at Giants headquarters more NFL-ready than anticipated, had a strong training camp, overtook Manning much sooner than expected and was christened "Danny Dimes" after a four-touchdown debut as a starter. Two straight wins were followed by five straight losses, however, as Jones began scattering big plays among comical blunders and far, far too many fumbles.

From the bottom to the top to someplace pretty close to the bottom again: Jones' last six months sound like a Broadway cliche. That's why his ability to maintain an even keel through it all could make him the perfect New York quarterback. 

"I've said since college that Daniel Jones was going to be a star and become a much better pro than he was a college player," says Palmer, a former NFL quarterback who worked with both Jones and Darnold at his QB Summit coaching academy before they entered the league.

Palmer notes that Jones received pro-style development from both Duke head coach David Cutcliffe and from private coach David Morris, who happened to be Manning's backup at Ole Miss. That preparation accelerated his progress through training camp. But Palmer says Jones possesses an even more critical quarterback attribute: the self-generated confidence required to push through adversity and tune out criticism.

"It's not that you have to not care what people think," Palmer says. "You can be pissed that people boo you. We're all human. But other people's opinion cannot influence your opinion of yourself."

That sort of confidence surely helped Jones stay focused while tabloids and talk show hosts were roasting him. "I don't think he cared at all," Palmer says.

Tannenbaum is also impressed with how Jones handled going from a "clueless" selection to Danny Dimes. "He seemed affable and even-keeled," Tannenbaum says. "He didn't overreact and wasn't sensitive. And I don't know if I would have done that at 22."

The pressure on Jones is low, for now. Sunday's game will be just his eighth career start, so his fumble sprees can still be classified as "rookie lumps." Giants coach Pat Shurmur has taken some heat for his in-game decisions (asking the rookie to convert a 4th-and-15 against the Cardinals, for instance), and general manager Dave Gettleman earns plenty of criticism for his roster construction (the whole thing is a mess), but the fact that the team finally replaced the fading Manning with Jones at all appears to have granted Giants management a little benefit of the doubt. 

As for the Eli comparisons, Cowboys defender DeMarcus Lawrence called Jones "another little Manning" before Monday night's game. If the compliment was meant as some reverse-psychology mind game, Jones didn't appear to take the bait. 

TAMPA, FLORIDA - SEPTEMBER 22: Quarterbacks Daniel Jones #8 and Eli Manning #10 of the New York Giants fist bump during warmups before the game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium on September 22, 2019 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Mi
Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images

"I appreciate that!" Jones said with a smile when asked about the remarks.

He then moved on to the next question.

          

Broadway Joe and the Marlboro Man

It's so unusual for the two New York teams to be led by promising young starting quarterbacks at the same time that Bleacher Report enlisted football historian John Maxymuk, author of the Quarterback Abstract, to help us find the last time it happened.

"The best I came up with was 1977," Maxymuk says: "Richard Todd and Matt Robinson for the Jets, and the Giants had rookies Joe Pisarcik and Jerry Golsteyn. Four exciting quarterbacks, wouldn't you say?"

Er, no. 

"How about 1964? Gary Wood and Mike Taliaferro."

Um, who?

Historically, when young Jets quarterbacks from Ken O'Brien through Sanchez were having their (usually brief) moments of glory, the Giants were set with established veterans like Simms or Manning. And because the Jets haven't enjoyed much high-level quarterback play since Joe Namath's (also brief) heyday, there has rarely been much real competition for the title of "New York's quarterback." It was Namath, then Simms, then Eli, with a few cameos (Pennington, Favre) and several stretches where neither team's quarterback was particularly relevant.

The best example Maxymuk found of two young top prospects duking it out for the hearts and minds of New Yorkers dates back to 1949, when young Bobby Layne threw for over 300 yards (a remarkable total in those days) to lead the New York Bulldogs to a 31-24 upset victory over Charlie Conerly's Giants. Both were in their second seasons at the time. For those of you under age 70: Layne became the Favre of the '50s, and Conerly led the Giants to the 1956 NFL championship before becoming an advertising legend as the Marlboro Man.

Layne and Conerly were indeed two budding superstars. But the Bulldogs were transplants from Boston who moved to Texas in 1952, so Layne's heroics didn't take the city by storm. "It was a bad team," Maxymuk explains. "No one cared."

Sounds a little like the Jets, only worse.

History tells us that New York rarely has two good quarterbacks at the same time because the Jets rarely have one good quarterback at any time. They've also ruined a few of the ones who showed promise. Anyone who remembers Dave Brown knows the Giants haven't always been innocent bystanders, either. 

There's a real chance that history is about to repeat itself. 

But if everything breaks right, Darnold versus Jones will turn into a rivalry the likes of which New York has never seen.

And how often does something truly new ever happen in the Big Apple?

          

Managing the chaos

Let's face it: Things are looking pretty bad for our young heroes right now. But a few of our experts offered the same example of why we should keep an open mind when a potential franchise quarterback's hopes are on the ropes.

"Don't forget how bad the Rams were not too long ago," Palmer says.

"Look at Jared Goff," a former player adds. "He didn't become 100 times better. He just got better coached."

The Rams went 4-12 in 2016, collapsing after years of Jeff Fisher's outdated team management. Goff looked as hopeless as a rookie quarterback could look. The whole organization appeared to be a lost cause. Then Sean McVay arrived with new ideas, the front office upgraded the supporting cast, and the Rams rocketed from the doldrums to the playoffs to the Super Bowl in just two seasons.

Of course, Los Angeles doesn't care about the Rams the way New York makes the world care about the Giants and Jets. Goff didn't get ridiculed on draft day or have his private conversations broadcast to the world. He wasn't saddled with the sort of nickname that's all but guaranteed to be sneered ironically (remember Mark Sanchize and Eric Mangenius?) if the bottom falls out for good.

Darnold and Jones must find a way to survive until the cavalry comes, whether it arrives in the form of better coaching, a better supporting cast or both. That ability to keep your head above water until help arrives is part of what makes franchise quarterbacks who they are.

MIAMI, FL - NOVEMBER 03: Nik Needham #40 of the Miami Dolphins sacks Sam Darnold #14 of the New York Jets during the fourth quarter of the game at Hard Rock Stadium on November 3, 2019 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images)
Eric Espada/Getty Images

"You're going to have ups and downs," Palmer says. "You're going to have good games, terrible games, mistakes. You'll have drama. Franchise quarterbacks, the guys who get to those big second and third contracts, make their money from managing the chaos that comes from building a franchise around them."

Darnold and Jones, for all their youthful flaws, excel at managing chaos. If they can keep it up, Sunday's lowly game between the 1-7 Jets and 2-7 Giants could be a turning point in NFL and New York sports history.

And if they can't handle the limelight or the organizational dysfunction, well, does anyone even remember Richard Todd or Joe Pisarcik?

                   

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.

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