When Joe Douglas took over as the Jets general manager 22 months ago, he considered Sam Darnold to be an asset. He really did. He loved the potential of his young franchise quarterback and imagined building a contender around him for years.
The fact that he switched gears so quickly, trading Darnold to Carolina and committing to a new franchise quarterback in the draft, wasn’t a reflection on Darnold, Douglas insisted. It was something he described as taking advantage of an unexpected opportunity – something he wouldn’t have done if the Jets weren’t picking so high in this draft.
And maybe that’s true, but the reasons for this quarterback change don’t really matter. The only thing that matters, for both the Jets’ future and Douglas’ legacy, is whether or not he got this right.
The move Douglas made on Tuesday was, at its core, a quarterback switch – moving from Darnold to a rookie, who will almost certainly be BYU’s Zach Wilson. The rest of the particulars are irrelevant. History won’t remember much about the three draft picks Douglas got in return for Darnold, and fans don’t care much about the fresh start for the organization or the chance to “hit the reset button financially.”
What matters is only this: Is Wilson going to perform better than Darnold over the next few years, or did Douglas send the better quarterback to Carolina. Because he just gave up on a 23-year-old quarterback that he sincerely seems to think is loaded with potential. Those are like gold in the NFL. Even Carolina GM Scott Fitterer conceded that if he’s right about Darnold he may have gotten a steal.
Douglas clearly has fallen in love with Wilson and his potential, too. A lot of people around the NFL believe Wilson will be a star. But their jobs aren’t on the line. Douglas is the one who is resting his career on this decision. Because if he’s wrong about the quarterback he’s committing to, the Jets are going to be a mess again.
And Douglas won’t be around to clean it up.
“Obviously there is an unknown factor when you’re talking about rookies and young players,” Douglas said on a Zoom call on Tuesday. “But ultimately the amount of work our coaching staff and scouts have put into this draft class, we feel good about the type of person we’re going to be able to bring in.”
Well, at this point, he better feel real good about it because it’s too late to turn back now. At least he seems to know that there are multiple layers to this move and that he can’t leave his new quarterback hanging the way the Jets did with Darnold, who wasn’t always well-supported by the organization. “We have to surround our next quarterback with as much talent as possible,” Douglas said. Of course, that was his plan when he thought that quarterback was going to be Darnold, too.
Douglas does have the ammunition to improve the supporting cast, including an amazing stockpile of 21 draft picks in the next two years, an astonishing 10 of which are in the first three rounds. But in the end, it will still come down to the quarterbacks, though because it always does. No one cares that the Kansas City Chiefs reset the financial clock by trading Alex Smith and committing to Patrick Mahomes. All that mattered was that Mahomes was the NFL MVP that year and won a Super Bowl a year later. And then the Chiefs reset everyone’s financial clock anyway by giving Mahomes a $500 million contract.
Years earlier, the Chargers never would’ve been forgiven for letting Drew Brees leave in 2006 if Phillip Rivers hadn’t become so successful. And to some extent the Miami Dolphins still haven’t been forgiven for passing on Brees as a free agent that year and trading for Daunte Culpepper instead.
There are countless other examples throughout NFL history. Choosing wisely when it comes to the quarterback can mean everything for a franchise. Choosing poorly … well, that always ends in disaster for the team and the man who made the choice.
And that will be the case with Douglas too, whose tenure with the Jets will be forever defined by this decision, this day. He will be the GM that moved on from Darnold and brought someone else – yes, likely, Wilson – to the Jets. Whether that’s the first line in a tribute to Douglas or in a news story about him being fired, only time will tell.
But it won’t hinge on the money or the picks or the supporting cast or anything else. The only thing matters from now on is who’s better, Wilson or Darnold? And for Douglas’ sake, Wilson better be good enough for this swap to look like a win.