NFL draft: Sam Darnold not fazed by Jets' history of QB troubles

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- In the field house where the New York Jets practice, they hang immense green and white banners to recognize the members of the team's ring of honor. There are Hall of Famers like Curtis Martin and Don Maynard represented there, and likely future Hall of Famers like Kevin Mawae.

There is just one quarterback in the group -- Joe Namath, of course, whose contribution to Jets mythology could not be contained in a piece of laundry the size of the entire building -- and that bit of lonely symbolism explains the Jets' entire existence. And why the first few minutes of Thursday night's draft -- when Cleveland took Baker Mayfield first overall and Sam Darnold dropped into the Jets' lap at No. 3 -- felt like potential payback for nearly 50 years of torment.

The Jets have a tortured, generations-spanning history of trying to find Namath's successor, the last two decades serving as a microcosm of the dashed hopes, staggering incompetence and wild shots in the dark that have populated the roster since not long after Namath held court with reporters around a pool a few days before the greatest upset in Super Bowl history. From Chad Pennington's shooting star shining so brightly that we once asked Bill Walsh how he compared in the West Coast offense to Joe Montana, to a brief flirtation with Peyton Manning, to a trade for Brett Favre, to a bizarre interlude with Tim Tebow, to Mark Sanchez being inserted into the second half of a 2013 preseason game behind a backup offensive line and promptly having his shoulder shattered, and to the punch that broke Geno Smith's jaw, there has been a mind-numbing string of foibles and futility. Fair or not, they have come to be the identity of the team writ large.

Darnold, at just 20, is too young to even be cognizant of much of that history -- the USC product is literally young enough to be the son of Josh McCown, the 38-year-old presumptive starter who will act as a mentor -- and that's certainly for the best. Living on the opposite side of the country from New York insulated Darnold from the brutal headlines that too often have accompanied Jets news, too. He is, for now, blissfully ignorant of how much pressure is likely to eventually descend on him. His debut Friday afternoon suggested he might have the even keel to deflect what has consumed others before him.

Darnold apparently has a sarcastic sense of humor. When he admitted to it, he was quick to say he wasn't saying it to be cocky. But when it comes to football conversation, he sounds like the gym rat of a coach's dream, talking only about the job he has to do, about the culture he and offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates have already discussed setting. When he was asked if he was aware of the desperate hopes fans are already attaching to him to finally settle the position and elevate the Jets, Darnold just shrugged.

"I'm aware of it," Darnold said. "Not growing up a Jets fan, I don't understand it to that extent. I'm going to come in here and do my job and be very confident in myself."

Having been a two-year starter at USC, Darnold is not completely naive about the weight of the job he will eventually hold. As he entered his introductory news conference, he held up his new jersey and turned to each bank of cameras, a bit of practiced stagecraft he had surely executed before. But there are reassuring hints that, in flat-line personality at least, he is closer to Giants quarterback Eli Manning than anybody the Jets have tapped of late. Darnold has been on the East Coast just once before, to visit his older sister, who lives in Rhode Island. So he said he hasn't even thought about what he might like to do now that he is so close to New York City. That is surely a relief for fans who remember Sanchez's comfort level with starlets and photo shoots.

"I'm very confident, it's more of quiet confidence," Darnold said. "I think the best way to describe it is confident, knowing what needs to get done and being very, very serious when it comes to that."

Pennington and Sanchez, of course, were also first-round draft picks who raised hopes for a while, too, before injuries robbed Pennington of his arm and Sanchez was undone by organizational ineptitude and his own inability to elevate his play when the Jets wanted to put more of the game in his hands. But their playoff appearances (in 2002, '04 and '06 for Pennington and '09 and 2010 for Sanchez) still loom large in a team history devoid of much postseason success. Their career arcs, though, are reminders that it is folly to assume Darnold is assured of sustained success no matter how quickly he wins the starting job, particularly because he has so much development ahead of him. The Jets will focus on cutting down his turnovers, the black mark on his resume. He had 22 of them last season, far too many for a team without much margin for error, that -- reality check -- will still be scrambling to make up ground on the New England Patriots in the AFC East.

But Darnold has a unique experience to bring to bear at the Jets. He has already endured a year of unusual scrutiny, because he was the expected top quarterback in the draft back when Jets fans were entertaining the idea of a Suck for Sam season. So he knows what it is like to have every mistake hashed over. That will be useful in New York.

"I think any situation that you're in, any lessons you might learn from a loss, or, in my case, if I turn ball over, I learn from it," Darnold said. "It's not a loss, it's a lesson. Even expectations from last year, being able to play relatively well from last season, it was another learning tool in terms of my growth and my maturity."

The 2018 season is the 50th anniversary of Namath's epic Super Bowl guarantee, and while that shot of Namath running off the field telling everyone who was No. 1 is grainy, it remains fresh in Jets lore, because there has simply been nothing approaching its magic.

There is a temptation, then, to think that whatever the Jets do, it will somehow turn out to be the wrong thing. This, though, feels right, the most complete quarterback in the draft, with the right personality to weather New York's vicissitudes. Darnold said all the right things about being very confident that the Jets will win some games, and anything but a Super Bowl being a failure.

He will not provide the quotes Namath did, and maybe Darnold's banner will never adorn the field house. But Darnold might have a better chance than anyone since Pennington of being the Jets' second franchise quarterback. And after Leonard Williams dropped to the Jets at No. 6 overall in 2015 and Jamal Adams fell to the same spot last year, perhaps good fortune has at long last returned to the most important position of all.

"A 20-year-old wonder kid!" said Boomer Esiason, who is among those on the long list of former Jets quarterbacks. "I was hoping he would've gone to the New York Giants, but when the Giants took (running back Saquon) Barkley, the Jets finally had something break for them at quarterback. Kind of reminds me of when Leonard Williams fell to them. So I'm stoked for a franchise that has been snake bitten so many times at quarterback."

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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