Less than two years into the arranged marriage in Florham Park between coach Adam Gase and first-round quarterback Sam Darnold, one of the pair is already no longer a member of the New York Jets. The future of the other remains up in the air.
In a Zoom conference call with reporters Tuesday, Jets general manager Joe Douglas touched on myriad subjects, from the state of the head-coaching search (underway) to whether the team was deliberately tanking for a top pick (no). But much of the discussion revolved around Darnold's place in the organization and when it will either be solidified or eliminated.
Douglas was noncommittal on the Jets' supposed franchise QB, suggesting that a decision won't be made on the former third-overall pick until New York finds its next head coach.
"Look, we've got a lot of decisions to make. I think Sam's going to be a great quarterback. I'm excited to get a head coach in here, go through our process," Douglas said. "I had a great conversation with Sam yesterday. I won't go into the specifics, but I think Sam has a very bright future in this league. We're going to get a head coach in here, we're going to get together, we're going to talk about quite a few decisions. I'm excited about Sam."
The highest-drafted QB in Jets history since Joe Namath in 1965, Darnold is coming off his third, and certainly most underwhelming, season with Gang Green. In leading the Jets to a near-franchise-worst 2-14 record in 2020, he threw for a career-low 2,208 yards and just nine TDs to 11 interceptions. Under Darnold and Gase, New York boasted a bottom-two offense for the second consecutive season.
While his fellow draftmates Baker Mayfield, Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen thrived in their third campaigns in the pros, Darnold in some ways regressed. He struggled with turnovers and injuries yet again and, lacking a respectable and reliable cadre of weapons, didn't establish a rapport with anyone in particular; Jamison Crowder led the team with just 699 receiving yards.
Douglas was well aware of Darnold's continued struggles, but happily made excuses for them.
"I think Sam faced a lot of obstacles this year, as did everybody, dealing obviously with COVID and frankly, we had quite a few injuries -- on the offensive line, at the wide receiver position," the Jets GM explained. "I think it was hard for our offense in general to really build the kind of sustained chemistry to create success throughout the year. I think we had different offensive line groups. Like I said earlier, we didn't really get a chance to get our top three receivers on the field at the same time until Week 9. I think all of those things impacted not only Sam, but our offense.
"I do think you saw in the month of December, Sam played a lot of good ball. You saw we were able to beat two playoff teams and a lot of that is because of the way Sam played. Like I said before, I really think that Sam truly does have a bright future in this league, a 23-year-old quarterback, and Sam's still going to get better every year."
Whether Darnold's future is in New York or, let's say, Washington is up to the new brain trust in Florham Park.
Darnold reiterated Monday that he wants to be "a Jet for life," but it's not up to him at this point. The deadline to pick up his fifth-year option is nearing, but given how the Jets finished the season, Darnold might not even be on the team come May.
By the time New York moved to 0-10 and started eying down the league's worst record and No. 1 pick, the conversation around Darnold had moved from "Is he the future?" to "What can the Jets get for him in a trade so they can replace him with star-college-QB-to-be-named-later?" That talk was complicated after the Jets turned in a two-game winning streak prior to a loss in the season finale and earned the No. 2 pick in the draft.
Thanks to the performance from Ohio State's Justin Fields, who has yet to declare his intentions to enter the 2021 NFL Draft, last weekend in the Sugar Bowl, New York's No. 2 pick has since increased in value, complicating the matter further. New York could realistically take a top QB to replace Darnold at No. 2, trade the pick for a king's ransom to some team who wants to do so or use it to take a player at another position of need.
All that depends on Douglas and the Jets' evaluation of the 23-year-old signal-caller, one that, like most things in the early goings of 2021, is TBD.