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Jets, Browns feeling optimistic about quarterback rooms (finally!)

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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- A quick scan of the spare first preseason crowd said everything about the longing for a new Jets quarterback. Young kids in Namath jerseys. Old men in Darnold. A nostalgic smattering of one-offs: Testaverde, Pennington, Sanchez. Favre!

Few teams have endured the quarterbacking melange of missed chances and mediocrity like the New York Jets. Bad drafts, shortsighted trades and career-stunting injuries have combined to keep a team solidly in one place, still defined by a moment that turns 50 this season, immortalized by the Jets' last -- only? -- franchise quarterback. Few teams except the Cleveland Browns, who not only know the Jets' pain, but even know some of their quarterbacks: Josh McCown and Vinny Testaverde have donned both teams' jerseys. The Jets at least got multiple playoff appearances each from Mark Sanchez, Chad Pennington and Testaverde. The last Cleveland quarterback to get to the playoffs -- at all -- was Tim Couch. The last to go more than once was Bernie Kosar in the late 1980s.

That's why MetLife Stadium had such a world-turned-upside-down feel to it late last week. The Browns (who visited the Giants on Thursday night) and the Jets (who hosted the Falcons on Friday) both emerged from their first preseason game feeling more optimistic about their quarterbacks than anybody this side of the Indianapolis Colts, enjoying an embarrassment of riches rare for any NFL team but practically unheard of for these two.

Browns coach Hue Jackson stood at the podium following his team's game and allowed a dumbfounded grin to cross his face after watching Tyrod Taylor, the presumptive starter for the regular-season opener, and first overall draft pick Baker Mayfield combine to complete 16 of 25 passes for 311 yards and three touchdowns (with zero picks). A reporter noted that this looked like an entirely different team.

"Yes, it did," Jackson responded. "I'm being very honest with you that I think it's the quarterback play."

Same deal for the Jets, who now have three functioning quarterbacks -- McCown, third overall pick Sam Darnold and Teddy Bridgewater -- just three years after their starting quarterback (Geno Smith) was sucker-punched in the face by a teammate, resulting in the broken jaw that all but ended his season. After Friday's game -- in which Bridgewater and Darnold combined to go 20-for-26, with each having a touchdown pass -- even the taciturn Todd Bowles admitted he was pleased. The Jets' pleasure with Darnold -- and their commitment to giving him every chance to win the starting job outright -- became even more obvious at a joint practice with Washington on Sunday, when Darnold took almost all of the reps with the first team. That was also the case in Monday's joint practice session. Bowles won't reveal his playing-time plans for this Thursday's game against the Redskins, but expect Darnold to have an increased role with the starters, where he will get to face a first-team defense for the first time.

Last Friday night, the three Jets quarterbacks were delighted -- McCown, especially so for Darnold, and Bridgewater for finally reaching the end of his long, improbable comeback. In a moment that should make the team especially happy, Darnold stood to the side while Bridgewater spoke about how good it felt to get hit again, intently observing how Bridgewater handled this part of the job, too. The relief and happiness in the locker room was obvious. This is not a team that has had much to celebrate in recent seasons. The first bit of evidence that Gang Green has successfully navigated its quarterback situation provided just the boost everybody needed.

Yes, Darnold faced backups. But it is not premature to mentally move the chess pieces around:

If Darnold will be anointed the starter for the regular season (the increased role is the next step toward that outcome) ... If McCown will remain on the roster because of his role as mentor, even if he does not start (highly likely) ... And if Bridgewater might soon be starting for a different team (conceivably), because he certainly appears to be better than some who are already projected to be starters ...

The last time the Jets had this much hope about their quarterbacks, Testaverde was returning from an Achilles injury to start the 2000 season, with Pennington as the first-round draft pick waiting in the wings.

Twenty-four hours apart, Darnold and Mayfield impressed for similar reasons: Both were under control and seemingly comfortable commanding the offense. They smoothly moved around the pocket, showed the expected ability to throw on the run, did not seem rattled by a pass rush, kept their eyes downfield and went through progressions. Darnold, critically, showed good ball security, a point of emphasis for him since before the draft.

They did not panic. They did not hurry. They did not get frustrated, even when Darnold had to throw three touchdown passes before he finally got credit for one. They did not, as the cliche says, look like "the moment was too big" for them.

The Jets and Browns will now face several weeks of complicated decision-making. And if Mayfield and Darnold perform again this week as they did last, coaches will hear mounting calls to start the rookies. Jackson has been adamant that Taylor is the starter, and the 29-year-old did nothing to put that position in doubt in the first preseason game. That is particularly important for Jackson, who is under pressure to win games now, after logging just one W over his first two seasons. But if Mayfield continues to play as well as he did on Thursday, the countdown to his ascension will be on.

Bowles said late Friday night he will not rush and could go all the way to the fourth game of the preseason to make his choice. In the meantime, the scrutiny of how practice reps are divided will ramp up.

These are surely first-world problems by NFL standards, but they are problems nonetheless. The Jets have a brutal start to the season, playing three games in the first 11 days and then facing the Jaguars' powerhouse defense. The Browns are ... well ... the Browns, with a long history of botching the position -- and with a 1-31 record looming over Jackson as he makes the decision that will factor enormously into general manager John Dorsey's evaluation of Jackson's future.

Regardless, it will be hard to make an argument to keep the rookies on the bench if they continue to play well in the coming weeks. It took enormous resources to procure them, and the franchises should start getting returns on their investments as soon as possible, particularly in an era when top-of-the-draft quarterbacks play immediately and often well. Neither team is just "one player away" this season. That should free the coaches to allow their quarterbacks to get their growing pains out of the way now, before the stakes get even higher.

In the meantime, the buddy-movies-as-quarterback-competitions figure to enhance the level of play. Mayfield and Taylor retire to a private recreational vehicle to get away from everyone at camp. The McCown-Bridgewater-Darnold trio has grown so close that nobody seemed happier for Bridgewater and Darnold last week than McCown. This is, indeed, a rare moment for two long-downtrodden teams -- a period not only of good options, but of goodwill.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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