Mike Maccagnan sat at the Water Grill in Santa Monica, California, looking at the menu when a young waiter approached.
“Messrs. Maccagnan, I’m a Jets fan and just wanted to thank you,” said the waiter.
It was March 21, 2018, and Maccagnan, then the Jets general manager, had traded three second-round picks to the Colts four days earlier to move from 6th to 3rd in the draft for a quarterback. The bartender was expressing the optimism that many fans felt with that move.
That afternoon, Maccagnan and several other Jets officials had seen Sam Darnold throw passes in the rain on the USC campus as part of his professional day. They walked away believing that Darnold would be number one overall against the Browns.
Instead, he fell to them at No. 3 and their selection of him created more hope around the Jets than he had felt in years. Like that young bartender 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 draft picks.
Darnold’s disappearance is not as easy as many would like you to believe. It’s an ugly stew of factors that, added to other Jets, are lost in a position that has plagued the organization greatly for nearly 50 years.
The Jets saw Darnold as a game changer from Day 1. Owner Christopher Johnson predicted his draft pick would be looked back in 20 years when the Jets got big. That summer he won a competition against veterans Josh McCown and Teddy Bridgewater that was clearly inclined for him to win.
His first game started terribly with a pick-six on his first pass, but he rallied to throw two touchdowns and helped 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 and chanted, “JETS, Jets, Jets, Jets.”
It felt like the Jets and their quarterback had arrived.
That’s the last time the Jets won a game in September and the last time Darnold’s record would be above .500.
Soon, it became clear that the foundations under Darnold were built on quicksand. Coach Todd Bowles and his staff would be fired at the end of the season, replaced by Adam Gase, who was hired primarily because of how he could help Darnold. Maccagnan was fired that spring and now the general manager and the coach who selected him are gone.
Darnold fought off Gase’s tough offense. He was slow to process, struggled to read the defense, and seemed overwhelmed at times. Internally, people pleaded with Gase to reduce the burden on Darnold and keep things simple. It worked for a brief period at the end of the 2019 season, but 2020 was a disaster with Darnold not throwing for 300 yards in one game.
Beyond training, the Jets failed to surround Darnold with a strong offensive line or good players. They signed Le’Veon Bell in 2019 and that didn’t work out. They recruited Denzel Mims last year and he struggled with injuries. They let Robby Anderson into free agency, a big miscalculation by general manager Joe Douglas. There were games where Darnold’s best receivers would be a challenge for even the most ardent fans to identify.
They tried to combine an offensive line with low-budget free agent signings. Left tackle Mekhi Becton, a first-round pick, was the only significant investment made down the line. In all, Darnold played with 56 different starting teammates on offense, none of them a Pro Bowler.
Darnold was not without guilt. Everyone may have been wrong about Darnold’s assessment out of college. He’s been a turnover machine (46 total), often trying to do too much. It took until December 2020 for him to have three consecutive games without turnover. In the end, it felt like a better game plan to ask Darnold to do less than lead the team. He didn’t see the field well and often threw head-scratching interceptions and didn’t see wide receivers.
Durability was also an issue. He didn’t play a full season for the Jets. A foot injury cost him three games as a rookie, a mononucleosis fight knocked him out for three in 2019 and a shoulder injury forced him to miss four games last season. The Jets were 0-10 in those games, another sign of organizational failure.
In the end, it’s hard not to remember the day he was drafted and that magical night in Detroit and think of the hope that existed then. That’s what hurts now. That hope may still come true, but not here, not with the Jets.