New York Jets Are Setting Up Sam Darnold for Failure

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterJuly 27, 2020

New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold straps his helmet while working out prior to an NFL football game against the Baltimore Ravens, Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)
Gail Burton/Associated Press

Great news, Sam Darnold! The Jets are finally your team!

That awful, awful troublemaker Jamal Adams has been banished to the Seahawks for having the temerity to push for a new contract simply because he was the best player on the roster and was due for one. Adams took with him any expectation that the Jets will even be quasi-competitive this season, or in 2021, or probably even in 2022. The Jets' only goal this year will be to accelerate Darnold's development so he's ready to be an All-Pro once the team adds multiple first-round picks over the next two years, including the two it just received in the Adams trade.

Adams was not only far and away the Jets' best player, but he was also their only real star and the focus of much of the team's media attention. All of those burdens now fall on Darnold: face of the franchise, undisputed leader, sole non-draft-related reason for hope, only person in uniform to point a finger at when things go wrong. What an exciting opportunity for personal and professional growth! 

Most of the other third-year quarterbacks are moving forward with their careers. Lamar Jackson is polishing his MVP award, Josh Allen is preparing for a playoff run, and even Baker Mayfield has an upgraded support network and some blessedly realigned expectations after the Browns' gas-leak year. But Darnold gets to spend another season under the developmental microscope for a talent-destitute team whose defense is about to take a big step backward. J-E-T-S Jets! Jets! Jets!

This is not the way competent organizations develop quarterbacks, of course. Nor is it a sensible, coherent rebuilding plan. Instead, marooning Darnold in an offense with few playmakers and ridding the defense of its one difference-maker is setting Darnold up for failure.

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In isolation, the Adams trade was a big win for the Jets. They traded a "malcontent" for two first-round picks, which will help a team that had little hope of reaching the playoffs this year rebuild for the future. But trades should never be evaluated in isolation, and an honest appraisal of the Adams deal leads to some unfortunate facts.

Adams was only a "malcontent" because head coach Adam Gase, general manager Joe Douglas and the Jets went out of their way to cast him as one by briefly benching him early last season, dangling him during last year's trade deadline and, as Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News reported last week, waffling on what should have been slam-dunk contract negotiations throughout the offseason.

There's a big difference between a team trading one of its best players over a contract/personality dispute and trading its only Pro Bowler under such circumstances.

The Jets should not be in long-term rebuilding mode in Darnold's third year, Gase's second year and Douglas' year 1.75 or whatever. They should be adding pieces instead of subtracting them. Trading Adams means that the Jets are about to waste a third precious year of affordable, young quarterback play, which only seems like no big deal because the Jets have wasted most of the last 52 years anyway.

By the time the second of the first-round picks they received in exchange for Adams arrives in 2022, Darnold will either be playing on his fifth-year option, earning the future equivalent of Carson Wentz-Jared Goff money, or out of town because he never lived up to expectations. By pushing their attempt to get better further into the future, the Jets made that depressing third possibility even more likely.

As I wrote after the Ravens upgraded their defense in March, the quality of a team's defense can have a significant impact on a young quarterback's development. When leading, NFL quarterbacks complete 65.8 percent of their passes, average 8.0 yards per attempt and post a quarterback rating of 114.7, per Pro Football Reference. When trailing, their numbers dip to 61.8 percent, 6.8 yards per attempt and have a 79.6 rating.

Quarterbacks, especially young ones, look better when playing with leads and punching in short drives after the defense forces a turnover. That helps them gain the confidence that allows them to develop in other areas. 

Darnold's quarterback rating last year when leading was 97.2, with 10 touchdowns, four interceptions and a 62.9 completion rate in 167 attempts. That was the Darnold we saw in convincing Jets wins last year over the Giants, Raiders and the Team With No Name. His rating when trailing was 64.1, with five touchdowns, eight interceptions and a 56.3 completion rate in 192 attempts. That was the guy who saw ghosts against the Patriots and lost to bad Jaguars and Dolphins teams that jumped out to first-half leads.

The Jets' draft and free-agent moves at least made some sense if their goal was to finally propel Darnold past the prospect stage. Breshad Perriman's arrival offsets the loss of speedy-but-inconsistent Robby Anderson. Mekhi Becton and Denzel Mims are fine rookie additions, though Darnold will be the one who feels Becton's rookie lumps at left tackle. The affordable veteran offensive line reinforcements (Connor McGovern, George Fant) were a step up from the team's usual plan for improving that unit: crossing its fingers and hoping things get better somehow.

The 2020 Jets were built to grind out a few close wins against mid-tier opponents, like they did when they beat the Steelers 16-10 and the Bills 13-6 late in the season. But with the defense depleted, they'll instead be heading into shootouts with a mediocre arsenal.

David Dermer/Associated Press

What the Jets did by trading Adams was hang a big Free Beer Tomorrow sign over their bar and announce that competitive football has once again been postponed until sometime in the future. Jets fans have seen the sign before and have gotten used to looking forward to mock drafts in early October.

Gase gets a mulligan year from playoff expectationsit's funny how often he procures thoseand Douglas can cast himself as a draft guru for two more offseasons. Everyone gets to dream of how much fun the Jets will be once they draft two edge-rushers, two cornerbacks, two or three more offensive linemen, another wide receiver, a tight end, a running back to replace Le'Veon Bell, and (yes) a playmaking safety with their four first-round picks over the next two years. Don't think too hard about the math not adding up.

Everyone gets to wait for the future except Darnold, that is. He must somehow prove he's a franchise quarterback for a franchise that doesn't appear all that interested in winning games right now.

And if he doesn't succeed, well, we just learned how the team deals with its most important player when things aren't working out: one of those future first-round picks could end up being used to select a quarterback.