Sam Darnold returns to L.A. as part of baggage in Jets’ winless season
The last time Sam Darnold played in Los Angeles was three years ago, when he guided USC to victory over UCLA at the Coliseum. It was a workmanlike performance by Darnold on that day — Bruins quarterback Josh Rosen put up better numbers — but a meaningful punctuation mark to the impressive college career of the Trojans star.
Darnold makes his return Sunday with the 0-13 New York Jets, and will face the Rams in an empty SoFi Stadium. Like that venue, Darnold’s NFL career is so cavernous it echoes.
The No. 3 pick of the 2018 draft is the league’s lowest-rated quarterback over the last three seasons, plays behind an offensive line as porous as a spaghetti strainer, has a receiving corps that’s so-so when healthy — they never are — and has regressed in a dysfunctional organization in which few players truly flourish.
“I just feel for the kid,” said Mark Sanchez, a fellow USC quarterback who the Jets once hoped would be their salvation. “He’s shown it in flashes, but if you give him a legit setup and he still screws up, then you can judge him. You can be like, ‘All right, maybe he’s more of a backup.’ But at this point, it’s just not fair.”
Darnold has a year left on his rookie deal, and it’s clear the Jets aren’t going to exercise his fifth-year option for 2022, which would cost them an estimated $25 million guaranteed. So it’s most likely the club will trade him and draft another quarterback, probably Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence.
The Jets have a rich history of ruining quarterbacks, or at least doing little to help them succeed. Earlier this month, in a sobering admission, coach Adam Gase conceded that the Darnold experiment has fizzled.
Sam Farmer, The Times’ NFL writer, makes his picks for the Week 15 slate of NFL games.
“I came here to help him and help him develop his career and we haven’t been able to do that,” Gase told reporters. “That’s why these games are so important, to help him continue to grow. I haven’t done a good enough job.”
The same could be said of Gase’s experience in Miami, where he failed to truly develop Ryan Tannehill, who has moved on to Tennessee, where he’s now among the league’s most reliable quarterbacks.
Darnold was atop the Jets’ wish list when they traded up to the No. 3 spot in 2018, even though they thought Cleveland might take him No. 1 overall. So when the Browns took Baker Mayfield first, the Jets were delighted. They were pleased too when division rival Buffalo took Wyoming’s Josh Allen seventh, because the Jets were far more enamored with Darnold.
Since, Darnold has struggled every week, failing to throw for more than 230 yards in his last 12 games (dating to last season), and Allen is in the most-valuable-player conversation.
“I’m not ready to say the Jets have ruined his career, because a lot of the stuff that has happened to him is really out of his control,” said CBS analyst Boomer Esiason, who played quarterback for the Jets from 1993-95. “This is really the difference in being drafted by, I don’t know, [coach] Sean McDermott in Buffalo and the Jet mess here in New York.
“Josh Allen got lucky. Believe it or not, Buffalo is a very stable franchise and has been since McDermott was hired. They had a plan, and that included adding a young quarterback along the way, and look where they are.”
Meanwhile, as is typical, the Jets have been a soap opera. Although the Jets lost both games, Darnold had strong performances back-to-back against Houston and Green Bay at the end of his rookie season, prompting praise from one of the best players in the game.
“He threw the ball really well,” Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “He’s moving around making throws on the run. I think he has a bright future.”
Running back Cam Akers’ parents are proud of what the rookie player has become throughout his years in high school, Florida State and now with the Rams.
For the Jets, that enthusiasm was fleeting. Darnold missed three games with mononucleosis near the beginning of last season, and struggled upon his return. He had four interceptions in a 33-0 loss to New England on “Monday Night Football,” and made a mic’d-up comment after one of those picks that would haunt him for the rest of the season.
“I’m seeing ghosts,” he said on the sideline, meaning the Patriots had fooled him with their scheme.
Not surprisingly, future opponents seized the expression. In a game at Jacksonville the following week, a plane flew over the stadium with a banner than proclaimed Jaguars quarterback Gardner Minshew “ain’t afraid of no ghosts.” And the Jaguars played the “Ghostbusters” theme song over the public-address system after the win. After beating the Jets the next week, the Miami Dolphins did the same.
When you play quarterback for the Jets and the season isn’t going well, the hits on the field are only the start.
“It’s the best of places and the worst of places,” said Sanchez, the No. 5 pick in 2009. “You’re always going to be in the news there, whether it’s as the punchline of a joke, or an, ‘Oh, man, the Jets are back from the dead’ kind of thing.”
Sanchez framed the tabloid headline “Broadway Schmoe” from his five-interception game against Buffalo as a rookie, and hung it on the wall of his New York home.
You have to laugh, right?
“Of course,” he said. “There was one with me, Rex Ryan, and Tim Tebow in a clown car. It said something like, ‘The circus won again’ or something like that. You’re like, oh my gosh, this is awesome. It’s just the way it goes.”
For his part, Darnold doesn’t complain. He’s unwaveringly professional, even as the wobbling wheels come off the organization.
“I love it here,” he told reporters this week. “I love the people, I love living here. I’ve always said I want to be a Jet for life, but that decision isn’t necessarily up to me. But that’s how I feel.”
The NFL is replete with stories of quarterbacks who didn’t make it with one team and reinvented themselves with another. And there will be no shortage of suitors for Darnold, possibly among them teams such as Indianapolis, San Francisco, and Chicago.
Michael Badgley’s two missed field-goal attempts against the Las Vegas Raiders nearly cost the Chargers a chance at victory.
The greatest quarterback in Jets history can attest to that.
“This team has a clear lack of talent,” Hall of Famer Joe Namath said. “It’s so difficult for the man who handles the ball every play to be able to execute. Whether it’s going to be with the Jets or not, there’s no doubt [Darnold] has a future.”
Namath recalled his first visit to the Jets, in the first days of 1965, before the franchise drafted him second overall. There, the equipment manager at Shea Stadium introduced him to star receiver Don Maynard.
“Don was at his locker, packing up his things,” Namath recalled. “The equipment guy introduced us, and there were some New York beat writers there. Don put his arm around my shoulder, turned me around and said, ‘Look here, son. I’m going to tell you something. This is a cold-blooded business. When they’re finished with you, they might not even say goodbye to you.’ ”
Darnold could know that feeling sometime soon. And he only just said hello.
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