Sam Darnold is better off a Jet than a Giant

ByIan O'Connor ESPN logo
Tuesday, May 8, 2018

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. --Sam Darnold's dramatic arrival in the New York market inspired an interesting question: Is it possible to be the toast of the town before you can legally buy a drink?

Darnold will turn 21 in June, and to watch him during his first day on the job with the New York Jets was to remember that this kid is really, you know, a kid. Before he put on his helmet, buckled his chinstrap and started slinging footballs around a practice field in the team's rookie minicamp over the weekend, Darnold looked a bit like a college student who had just rolled out of bed. His reddish hair mussed, the unshaven Darnold faced the media in the middle of the locker room and answered questions with no trace of alarm in his voice. He repeatedly called his first NFL experiences "awesome." He described himself as a "pretty relaxed" guy. He promised to be true to his California self in "every setting."

Soon enough, he was sitting in a small chair at his stall, folding his thick, 6-foot-3 frame forward as he lost himself in the binder of schedules and plays resting in his lap. As youth is often wasted on the young, Darnold might have spent his first days on an NFL field without any clue that he is the luckiest man in New York (or New Jersey) -- Saquon Barkley included -- and that he is better off with the Jets than he would have been with the historically more successful and less dysfunctionalGiants.

In fact, no high-profile athlete has entered the New York market with a greater opportunity to build a lasting legend since Mark Messier joined theRangersin 1991, 51 years after that franchise had last won the Stanley Cup. Darnold comes to the Jets 50 years after they upset the Baltimore Colts for their only Super Bowl title. Now all the former USC star has to do is win one championship over the next 15 or so years -- just one -- and he will be lionized for life in the world's most significant city.

The roadmap from here to there is easy to read, said Steve Rosner, a partner at 16W Marketing with clients including former NFL quarterbacks Phil Simms and Boomer Esiason.

"If Sam Darnold has to emulate two New York athletes," said Rosner, a Jets season-ticket holder for four decades, "he should emulate Joe Namath on the field and Derek Jeter off the field."

In other words: Lead the Jets to a breakthrough Super Bowl victory and stay out of trouble after hours.

"What Jeter did off the field," Rosner said, "never ending up in the newspaper for something bad, is one of the greatest accomplishments in New York sports over the last 50 years."

Darnold doesn't have to match Jeter's five championships; he doesn't even have to match Eli Manning's two. The Giants could have drafted Darnold as the successor to the 37-year-old Manning after theCleveland Brownsmade quarterbackBaker Mayfield the No. 1 overall pick, but instead, they gambled on Barkley and the possibility that he'll become a transcendent running back.

This might not have seemed like a good break to Darnold at the time, given the Giants' standing as a flagship NFL franchise. But think about it for a minute: If Darnold ultimately replaced a two-time Super Bowl MVP, he would be expected to meet that standard.

With the Jets, Darnold will ultimately replace Josh McCown (unless Teddy Bridgewater makes a miraculous return from his devastating knee injury). McCown has a 23-50 record as an NFL starter and stands at the end of a very long line of quarterbacks who have failed to lead the Jets to the Super Bowl for the first time since man stepped on the moon.

"So Darnold has the ability to create his own legacy, as opposed to following someone else's," said Joe Favorito, a Columbia University professor and longtime strategic communications and marketing executive in New York. "If he wins with the Jets, the great thing is it can mean whatever he wants it to mean. He can be immortalized like Joe Namath and go after whatever he wants in the business world. Or he can sit back and let it all come to him -- because it will. Everyone wants to be a chooser rather than a chaser. If Sam Darnold wins one, he becomes a chooser."

Of course, winning just one is a lot harder than it sounds. Darnold's fellow first-round pick from USC, Mark Sanchez, reached the AFC Championship Game in his first two years with the Jets (2009 and 2010), then never made another postseason start. Sanchez is best remembered not for his franchise-record four playoff victories but for butt-fumbling his way into a lowlight that will be a featured part of blooper reels for as long as football is played.

Things can turn ugly in the NFL in a New York minute. Darnold will have to repair the turnover problems that burdened him at USC, learn how to call plays in the huddle and at the line, and figure out -- with relatively smallish 9 3/8-inch hands -- how to throw the football through the kind of late-season Meadowlands weather he didn't see in Los Angeles.

But with Tom Brady turning 41 in August, Darnold will likely play most of his prime in an AFC East finally, mercifully, liberated from the clutches of the greatest quarterback ever. Jets officials already are optimistic that Darnold has the temperament and poise to succeed Brady -- and outduel theBuffalo Bills'Josh Allen-- as the long-term quarterback to beat in the division. They already believe he will embody a low-drama, low-maintenance approach that eluded Sanchez and others.

The morning after Darnold was introduced to the New York media in his post-draft news conference at the team's Florham Park facility on April 27, he was ushered into a conference room and toward a table stacked with some 800 items requiring his signature. Jets first-rounders are usually run through this gantlet after their introduction, and some have been more agreeable than others. Darnold? "OK, let's go," he immediately said. He sat at the head of the table and signed every last helmet and ball without complaint before paying a visit to the nearby Goryeb Children's Hospital to make some kids smile.

"Sam Darnold is a sponsor's dream," said Blake Lawrence, a former Nebraska linebacker who is the CEO of opendorse, a marketing platform that has connected major brands with more than 3,200 athletes on social media. "He's got the USC brand behind him, the Los Angeles market and roots, the New York City market, the first-round hype. ... He's got looks and charm, a likable personality, longtime media training and a clean background. It's a perfect combination."

Lawrence compared Darnold to, among other established quarterbacks, thePhiladelphia Eagles' Carson Wentz. "But with the L.A. base," he said, "not North Dakota State." That's why more brands (nine) have partnered with Darnold for sponsored Instagram posts over the past five months than have ever partnered with all previous Jets first-rounders and quarterbacks combined, according to opendorse.

But in the end, Darnold's success on the field, or lack thereof, will determine the durability and magnitude of his stardom. If he falters, his will be the most disappointing right arm in New York since Matt Harvey's. If he rises to the challenge, his impassive coach, Todd Bowles, will be doing a lot more of the playful shouting he did in his first news conference after watching Darnold throw from the pocket and show off his roll-out athleticism.

The challenge is simple. Darnold was reminded by a reporter the other day that it has been "half a century" since the Jets won a ring (man, that sounds like a long time) and that he was drafted to end the drought. Darnold responded that he embraces the responsibility, that he knows he has to earn respect rather than demand it and that he realizes he needs to be a leader at all times. It was a good answer.

Of the nine major professional sports teams in the New York/New Jersey area, the Jets have gone the longest without a title (1968), with the Knicks running a close second (last won the NBA title in 1973) and the Nets running third (last won the ABA title in 1976). Darnold is lucky -- really, really lucky. He wasn't born until 1997, but Messier could tell him a thing or two about the Stanley Cup he won for the Rangers in 1994 and how it means as much to his legacy as the sum of all five he won inEdmonton.

Darnold has an enormous opportunity here, courtesy of the more admired franchise next door. Just as Wellington Mara's Giants effectively sent Namath to the Jets by drafting a running back (Tucker Frederickson) No. 1 in 1965, John Mara's Giants effectively sent Darnold to the Jets by drafting a running back (Barkley) at No. 2.

While under center for various snaps in his first NFL practice, Darnold shouted, "Broadway, Broadway," as a signal to his offensive teammates.

Darnold needs to be Broadway Joe on the field but not necessarily off the field. He needs to win just one championship, like Namath, to be remembered forever among the biggest stars in the biggest city. All in all, that's a pretty good place for someone to be a month before his 21st birthday.

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