New York Jets' epochal draft duty: franchise QB or bust

Joe Namath remains, all these years later, the only true franchise quarterback in New York Jets history.

I know what you're thinking. That can't be. It's impossible. Joe Namath was on the Jets, like, 40 years ago (42, actually). There has to be ... someone. But no. It's just him. Joe Willie. Mr. White Shoes. No. 12. Broadway Joe ... and a lingering ellipsis. When Roger Goodell steps to the podium to announce the Jets' first pick in the 2018 NFL Draft next month, it will mark 15,111 days since Namath threw his final pass for the team.

It's no coincidence the Jets don't have a Lombardi Trophy to show for those 15,111 days.

Broadway has led to a dead end -- a cul-de-sac, really -- that's kept the franchise driving in circles for decades. Jets decision-makers have come and gone, but no one has ever brought stability to the game's most important position. Richard Todd was just another guy. Ken O'Brien wasn't Dan Marino. Browning Nagle was all name, no game. Boomer Esiason was over the hill. Neil O'Donnell made money. Vinny Testaverde had a moment, then got hurt. Chad Pennington also had a moment ... and also got hurt. Brett Favre made a cameo that's become increasingly surreal with the passage of time. Mark Sanchez actually beat Tom Brady in a playoff game (this really happened!), but was ultimately unable to overcome his overall, well, Mark Sanchezness. There was also some baseball player named Tim Tebow.

In recent years, the position has turned into a revolving door for journeymen of varying competence. Geno Smith. Ryan Fitzpatrick. Bryce Petty. Josh McCown. There's also Christian Hackenberg, who -- let's be honest here -- will be very fortunate to reach journeyman status. The team's second-round pick in 2016, Hackenberg has become the face of Jets QB dysfunction, a title achieved without his ever having thrown a pass in a game that counts. The Penn State product's failure to launch has haunted the team and put into question whether the current Jets brain trust can be trusted to make another key decision at quarterback.

This is of particular relevance as the draft approaches.

The centerpiece goal of this Jets offseason is about finding a long-term solution to Gang Green's evergreen QB crisis. It started in free agency, where New York made a hard push for Kirk Cousins. The gambit made sense. After all, Cousins offered the path of least resistance in solving the organization's forever riddle behind center. Established quarterbacks of Cousins' ilk rarely hit the open market; this represented a shortcut to stability. Unfortunately for the Jets, the Vikings dropped a boulder on that convenient path.

Cousins' decision to sign with the Vikings sent the Jets to Plan B: Finding their Namath 2.0 in an intriguing incoming rookie class. To do that, New York felt compelled to surrender a trio of second-round picks to move up to the third overall selection -- an expensive but sensible trade executed by general manager Mike Maccagnan, who had the sense to know he couldn't afford to let the draft come to him at the sixth spot. Those departed draft picks, by the way, were ultimately the cost of a three-game winning streak early last fall. On the plus side, Jets fans will always have that electrifying 17-14 win over the Cleveland Browns in Week 5. Goosebumps for days!

Put simply: April 26 will be one of the most important and impactful days in recent franchise history ... for better or worse. Maccagnan, whose last quarterback pick left him with a scarlet letter "H" on his lapel, won't survive another miscalculation. Same for Todd Bowles, the rare coach who gets a fourth year on the job without a playoff appearance to his name.

If the Jets hit on their pick, it sets the franchise up for the foreseeable future during a time when the Patriots have a (brilliant) 40-something quarterback and, thanks to the Jimmy G trade, no succession plan in place. The Jets, like the rest of the AFC East, have been trying to get past the Patriots for almost two decades now. April 26 could be the day they finally make their move. They just have to pick the right guy.

And who will the proposed Patriot Slayer be? The Jets are unlikely to get their full choice of quarterbacks as the Browns zero in on Sam Darnold at No. 1, but they'll end up with one of the big names. Consider it a massive upset if Josh Rosen, Josh Allen or Baker Mayfield is not holding up a green No. 1 jersey in Dallas.

"It's almost a shame to call it Plan B," Jets CEO Christopher Johnson said Sunday at the NFL's Annual League Meeting in Orlando, Florida, "because it's shaping up as something pretty magnificent."

Now comes the nerve-wracking part for Jets fans. The stakes are sky-high. Will they pick the right guy? Can Big Mac be trusted post-Hack? Can the franchise escape its long shadow of QB folly? Most importantly: Are any of these kids actual long-term answers? History is instructive here, and it tells us half these top prospects will probably underwhelm as pros. The Jets need their scouting department to be right -- and they'll need a little luck, too. They haven't had much of that since Joe was around.

And what happens if the Jets, despite 15,111 good reasons to do so, don't pick a quarterback in the first round? Long Island will burn, my friends.

Follow Dan Hanzus on Twitter @danhanzus. Listen to the Around The NFL Podcast, which Dan hosts three times a week.

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