By Lenn Robbins
We’re way past the point of wondering if the Jets were lucky or good in the 2018 NFL Draft.
New York football fans that still want to rip the Giants for not drafting Sam Darnold – or any other quarterback they believe could spell, ‘franchise’ – can’t be the slightest bit disappointed in Saquon Barkley – a back for the ages.
We will be ridiculously fortunate to watch Barkley, who has the most impressive thighs outside of those featured in the S.I. Swimsuit issue. He will stop and start, change direction, accelerate, decelerate, catch passes, break off 50-yard touchdown runs and, yes, block.
In just his second season, Barkley is the most complete back in the league.
But can he lead a team to the Super Bowl in this era of carnival passing offenses? Can any back?
Doubtful. In this era of Air Raid offense, the quarterback is the common denominator: Have a great one and there’s a chance to hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy. Have a mediocre one and maybe you win a title with a great supporting cast.
(Side note: Still don’t know where Nick Foles lands in this conversation).
The last team to win it all with a pedestrian quarterback was the Baltimore Ravens in 2012. Joe Flacco, who now is with the Denver Broncos, played a marvelous Super Bowl but it was the Ravens angry-mob defense that carried that team.
The Jets have the makings of a very good, potentially great defense. Once again, we don’t know if they were good or lucky to have Quinnen Williams drop to them with the No.3 pick, but he was the best player in the 2019 Draft.
The Jets also might have that elite quarterback in Darnold.
Darnold, 22, could be the best quarterback to wear a Jets jersey since Joe Namath. He could lead the Jets to only their second Super Bowl win in 59 seasons. The Ravens, for comparison, have won two in 24 seasons.
When it comes to Jets futility there is no shortage of reasons. For this space, it comes down to one fact – they have only had that superstar quarterback once. Once.
Now here is Darnold telling us that he feels great heading into the year and he’s right where he wants to be. His coach, Adam Gase, has gushed that he didn’t appreciate Darnold’s arm strength after Gase saw him live twice last season as the coach of the Dolphins.
Darnold played like most rookie quarterbacks last season.
He threw almost as many interceptions (15) as touchdowns (17). His passer rating (77.6) would put him in the ‘Also Receiving Votes” category for worst rookie quarterbacks of all time.
One of those on the list is Eli Manning who threw nine interceptions, six touchdowns and a had a passer rating of 55.4 as a rookie. Manning turned out quite well, leading the Giants to two Super Bowls and a one-way ticket to Canton one day.
Now here stands Darnold, about to enter Year 2. He doesn’t not have the greatest arsenal of weapons although running back Le’Veon Bell, who was Barkley before Barkley, can hurt teams in a lot of ways. Darnold has a quarterback friendly coach in Gase. But he has something extra.
Darnold, the former USC quarterback, has a swagger that is the perfect pitch of subtle meets confidence. At his introductory press conference last season, when he was just 20 years of age, he was thrown a tough ball: Was he aware of the Jets quarterback tradition (gag!)?
“I’m aware of it,’’ he deftly responded. “Not growing up a Jets fan, I don’t understand quite to that extent. But again, I’m going to come in here and do my job and be very confident in myself.”
Darnold has a California-sized confidence. How else could he not have crumbled when his first NFL pass attempt turned into a Pick 6? (BTW: Brett Favre also had his first pass picked and returned as well.) Hey, Jets fans will take any morsel of hope that can nibble on.
Darnold took the blame for a couple of losses last season but he was never more accountable than after a 21-17 loss to the Browns.
“It’s not acceptable the way I played,” Darnold told reporters after the loss. “I just made stupid mistakes in the fourth quarter and some missed opportunities throughout the whole game. I have to play better, and that’s on me.”
The Jets franchise now resides on Darnold’s shoulders. He says he is more comfortable and confident than he was as a rookie. But it’s what Gase said that really gives Jets fans hope that finally, the savior has arrived.
“He’s not the kind of quarterback you’re looking to protect,’’ said Gase.
No, the Jets are looking for much more. So is Darnold.