Two years ago, New York Jets general manager Joe Douglas laid out a simple vision for how he wanted to return this woebegone franchise to respectability: Build a strong offensive and defensive line around a young franchise quarterback.
He said he believed the Jets had that quarterback in Sam Darnold. On Monday, Douglas admitted that he was wrong when he made the monumental decision to trade Darnold to the Carolina Panthers.
Let’s be real: no one, not even Douglas, knows if moving on from Darnold was the right move. It will take months before we even start to know and probably years before a fair assessment can be made.
But here’s what we do know: Monday’s decision and Douglas’ next move at quarterback will define his tenure with the Jets. And he better make sure he gets it right, because he’s not going to get another chance.
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Yes, Douglas is under contract through the 2024 season after smartly demanding a six-year commitment from the Jets before he took over as general manager in May 2019. This was never going to be a quick fix. But Monday’s trade upped the stakes significantly for Douglas and the Jets, who have the longest active playoff drought in the NFL at 10 years and running.
If the Jets are looking for a new quarterback two or three years from now, they’ll be two or three years deeper into a playoff drought and no closer to finding the answer to the question that has vexed them since Joe Namath took off his Jets helmet for the final time nearly 50 years ago. Imagine what an already frustrated Jets fan base would look like if it gets to that point. Douglas won’t be able to survive that, no matter how long his contract is.
It’s easy to see the logic in Douglas’ decision to trade Darnold. In three seasons with the Jets, Darnold consistently regressed and never showed he was good enough to overcome the considerable adversity that was thrown his way.
Starting over with a baggage-free, talent-laden young quarterback on a team-friendly contract gives the Jets the best chance to get it right with the next guy. The Jets got a good return for Darnold given the circumstances: a 2021 sixth-round pick and a second- and fourth-round pick in 2022.
The Jets are obviously going to use the No. 2 pick in this year’s draft to pick their next quarterback. And whether they pick BYU’s Zach Wilson, which is expected, or go with Ohio State’s Justin Fields, they still have 20 more picks in the next two drafts, including three more in the first round. That’s more than enough ammo to get things back on track.
As we look ahead to the monumental decisions facing Douglas, it’s fair to note that he didn’t draft Darnold. That was former general manager Mike Maccagnan, who selected Darnold No. 3 overall in 2018 but never came close to putting the right talent around the young quarterback. Darnold’s failure to become the guy for the Jets, ultimately, will go down as yet another failure on Maccagnan’s already unimpressive resume.
But Douglas is not without blame for that failure. He had two years to build a roster around Darnold and wasn’t able to make a meaningful upgrade to the offensive line or the weapons around him. That’s part of the reason that we don’t know for sure if the Jets just moved on from a disappointing young quarterback or if they just let a talented 23-year-old walk out the door.
That’s what makes this whole dynamic so fascinating. Douglas has proven that he’s a deft deal-making GM. That’s how he went into this critical offseason with so much draft capital and cap space.
But Douglas has yet to prove that he has the eye for talent to rebuild this franchise. He has all the resources to do it now. The good news for Douglas is that trading Darnold gives him the best chance to get this right moving forward.
Many viewed keeping Darnold as the “safe” move. But every option available to Douglas this offseason involved significant risk. If he kept Darnold, he might have been letting a younger, more talented quarterback end up on another team.
There’s no guarantee that Wilson or Fields will be a good quarterback. Despite their remarkable talent, history tells us that it’s likely one of them won’t pan out.
But starting over with a fresh slate and even more assets gives Douglas the best chance to support the new quarterback in a way he never supported Darnold.
And he better get it right this time, because he’s not going to get another chance.