Mike Maccagnan was sitting at the Water Grill in Santa Monica, California, looking over the menu as a young waiter approached.
“Mr. Maccagnan, I’m a fan of the Jets and I just wanted to thank you,” said the waiter.
It was March 21, 2018, and Maccagnan, then the Jets general manager, had traded three picks from the second round to the Colts four days earlier to move up from No. 6 to No. 3 in the draft to take a quarterback. The waiter expressed the optimism many fans felt with that move.
That afternoon, Maccagnan and several other Jets officials had seen Sam Darnold throw passes in the rain on USC’s campus as part of his pro day. They walked away thinking Darnold would go No. 1
Instead, he fell for them at No. 3, and their choice of him created more hope around the jets than one had felt for years. As the young servant in California, Jets fans everywhere believed the team had found its savior and better days were ahead.
On Monday, that hope died when the jets sent Darnold to the Panthers for three drafts.
Darnold’s death is not as easy as many would like you to believe. It’s an ugly stew of factors, all of which added another Jets missing out on a position that has largely weakened the organization for nearly 50 years.
The Jets considered Darnold a switch from Day 1. Owner Christopher Johnson predicted that his pick in the draft would be seen back in 20 years as the moment the Jets became big. He won a competition that summer against veterans Josh McCown and Teddy Bridgewater, who were clearly weighted toward winning.
His first game started horribly with a pick-six on his first pass, but he recovered and threw two touchdowns, helping the Jets beat the Lions 48-17 in Detroit on “Monday Night Football.” Near the end of the game, Jets fans gathered behind the Jets bench at Ford Field, shouting, “JETS, Jets, Jets, Jets.”
It felt like the Jets and their quarterback had arrived.
This is the last time the Jets won a game in September, and the last time Darnold’s record would be over 0.500.
It soon became clear that the foundation under Darnold was built on quicksand. Coach Todd Bowles and his staff would be fired at the end of the season, replaced by Adam Gase, who was largely hired because of how he could help Darnold. Maccagnan was fired that spring, and now the GM and the coach who drafted him both were gone.
Darnold fought in Gase’s complicated offense. He was slow to process, struggled to read the defense, and at times looked overwhelmed. Internally, people asked Gase to reduce the strain on Darnold and simplify things. It worked for a brief period at the end of the 2019 season, but 2020 was a disaster where Darnold did not throw in 300 yards in a game.
In addition to coaching, the Jets could not surround Darnold with a strong offensive line or good skilled players. They signed Le’Veon Bell in 2019 and it did not work. They drafted Denzel Mims last year and he struggled with injuries. They let Robby Anderson go into free agency, a huge miscalculation by GM Joe Douglas. There were games where Darnold’s best receivers would be a challenge to identify for even avid fans.
They tried to patch up an offensive line of budget-free agent signatures. Left tackle Mekhi Becton, a first round, was the only significant investment made on the line. In all, Darnold played with 56 different starting teammates on the offensive, none of whom were a Pro Bowler.
Darnold was not innocent. It’s possible that everyone just went wrong with the Darnold evaluation out of college. He has been a turnover machine (46 in total) and has often tried to do too much. It took until December 2020 for him to have three consecutive games without a turnover. In the end, it felt like a better game plan to ask Darnold to do less than carry the team. He did not see the field well and often threw head-scratching interceptions and could not see open receivers.
Durability was also an issue. He did not play an entire season once for the Jets. A foot injury cost him three games as a rookie, a mononucleosis match ruled him out for three in 2019, and a shoulder injury forced him to miss four games last season. The Jets went 0-10 in those games, another sign of organizational failure.
In the end, it’s hard not to think back to the day he was summoned and the magical night in Detroit and think of the hope that existed then. That’s what’s sticking out now. This hope may still be realized, but not here, not with the Jets.