Mike Maccagnan sat at the Water Grill in Santa Monica, Calif., looking over the menu when a young waiter approached.
“Mr. Maccagnan, I’m a Jets fan and I just wanted to thank you,” the waiter said.
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 up from No. 6 to No. 3 in the draft to take a quarterback. The waiter was expressing the optimism many fans felt with that move.
That afternoon, Maccagnan and several other Jets officials had watched Sam Darnold throw passes in the rain on the campus of USC as part of his pro day. They walked away believing Darnold would go No. 1 overall to the Browns.
Instead, he fell to them at No. 3 and their selection of him created more hope around the Jets than had been felt in years. Like that young waiter 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 shipped Darnold to the Panthers for three draft picks.
Darnold’s demise is not as easy as many would like to have you believe. It is an ugly stew of factors that all added up another Jets miss at a position that has largely bedeviled the organization for close to 50 years.
The Jets viewed Darnold as a game-changer from Day 1. Owner Christopher Johnson predicted that his selection in the draft would be looked back upon in 20 years as the moment the Jets became great. He won a competition that summer against veterans Josh McCown and Teddy Bridgewater that was clearly weighted toward him winning.
His first game started off terribly with a pick-six on his first pass, but he recovered 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, “J-E-T-S, Jets, Jets, Jets.”
It felt like the Jets and their quarterback had arrived.
That is the last time the Jets won a game in September and the last time Darnold’s record would be over .500.
Soon, it became clear that the foundation under Darnold was 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 largely because of how he could help Darnold. Maccagnan was fired that spring and now the GM and coach who drafted him were both gone.
Darnold struggled in Gase’s complicated offense. He was slow to process, struggled to read the defense and looked overwhelmed at times. Internally, people pleaded with Gase to lessen the load on Darnold and simplify things. It worked for a short stint at the end of the 2019 season, but 2020 was a disaster with Darnold not throwing for 300 yards in one game.
Beyond coaching, the Jets failed to surround Darnold with a strong offensive line or good skill players. They signed Le’Veon Bell in 2019 and that did not work. They drafted Denzel Mims last year and he struggled with injuries. They let Robby Anderson walk in free agency, a huge miscalculation by GM Joe Douglas. There were games when Darnold’s best receivers would be a challenge to identify for even ardent fans.
They tried to patchwork an offensive line with budget free agent signings. Left tackle Mekhi Becton, a first-round pick, was the only significant investment made on the line. In all, Darnold played with 56 different starting teammates on offense, none of them a Pro Bowler.
Darnold was not blameless. It is possible that everyone was just wrong about the Darnold evaluation out of college. He has been a turnover machine (46 total), often trying to do too much. It took until December of 2020 for him to have three consecutive games without a turnover. By the end, it felt like a better game plan to ask Darnold to do less than to carry the team. He did not see the field well and often threw head-scratching interceptions and failed to see open receivers.
Durability was also an issue. He did not play a full season once for the Jets. A foot injury cost him three games as a rookie, a bout with mononucleosis sidelined him for three in 2019 and a shoulder injury forced him to miss four games last season. The Jets went 0-10 in those games, another sign of organizational failure.
In the end, it is hard not to think back to the day he was drafted and that magical night in Detroit and think about the hope that existed then. That is what stings now. That hope may get realized still, but not here, not with the Jets.