Justin Fields' struggles in CFP Title Game shouldn't sway Jets' decision one way or the other


I talked to a fly on the wall of general manager Joe Douglas’ office at One Jets Drive, and it reported to me that the Zoom conversation it heard between Douglas and an unnamed head coach candidate went something like this:

Douglas: Do you believe you can develop Sam Darnold and turn him into a winning quarterback?

Coach X: Of course. A lot of Sam’s problems are fixable. My staff and I will work with him and you’ll be amazed at the difference.

Douglas: Thank you for your time. We’ll let you know.

At least I hope that’s how a potential scenario would go down, for any response other than “Joe, draft a darn quarterback at No. 2” would be disqualifying.

Confoundingly, there are still some so-called experts, including ESPN’s Todd McShay – Douglas’ teammate at Richmond – who consider Darnold salvageable if you surround him with a proper coach and competent weapons.

On the 52nd anniversary of the fulfillment of Joe Namath’s Super Bowl III guarantee, this narrative has to stop. Darnold has no business being part of the Jets’ future. What sunk him this season wasn’t just his last-place passing grade from ProFootballFocus.com, among the 32 NFL QBs with at least 300 dropbacks; no, it was also the fact that Joe Flacco had success downfield in his last two games as Darnold’s injury replacement, when he played with the Jets’ full complement of receivers. In the subsequent six weeks, with Breshad Perriman, Denzel Mims, and Jamison Crowder mostly healthy, Darnold failed to even reach 200 yards passing four times. That’s unacceptable.

If Douglas, for some reason, has Alabama’s Heisman Trophy-winning wide receiver DeVonta Smith – who toyed with Ohio State in the Crimson Tide’s 52-24 rout of the Buckeyes in Monday night’s CFP National Championship Game despite only playing a half – as the second-best player on his draft board behind Trevor Lawrence, he still has to take a quarterback. The same principle applies to Oregon tackle Penei Sewell, who ESPN’s Mel Kiper rates as his No. 2 prospect.

The only scenario where the Jets shouldn’t select a quarterback is in the unlikely event that the pick is traded for Houston’s Deshaun Watson. Unfortunately, former coach/GM Bill O’Brien has left the Texans’ building, so it would take a gargantuan offer – significantly more than the so-called haul the Jets received from Seattle last offseason for Jamal Adams – to get Houston to the table. Also, Watson has a no-trade clause, and there’s been no indication that he’d acquiesce to be moved to heretofore dysfunctional and subsequently asset-depleted New York.

That means the only hard part about Douglas’ Draft Day decision will be which quarterback to take. Ohio State’s Justin Fields, who entered his junior season as the clear-cut favorite for this slot, had a rollercoaster playoffs, dominating Clemson (and outplaying Lawrence) with six passing TDs in last week’s semifinal before an underwhelming performance (17-for-33 with 194 yards passing and one TD) on Monday. In the end, neither outing should sway Douglas too much, especially with Fields playing Monday’s game through a hip pointer he suffered in the second quarter versus Clemson.

Douglas will surely meet with his scouts and new coach to go over all the available information in advance of the Draft. At this stage, my preference remains BYU’s Zach Wilson, with Fields an acceptable option since he will likely add a running dimension. Wilson isn’t as athletic, but he seems quicker with his decisions and release. Fields also has an unhealthy habit of throwing balls up for grabs when facing pressure, perhaps because he hasn’t experienced much of it behind a stout Ohio State offensive line. That will take some getting used to if he ends up on the Jets.

Fortunately, the new quarterback won’t be coming to a program run by Adam Gase. On that front, Douglas has been doing his due diligence on a wide array of candidates. He has scoured from the very young (Carolina offensive coordinator Joe Brady and Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley) to the ancient (Marvin Lewis), from offensive schemers (Buffalo OC Brian Daboll) to defensive whizzes (Indianapolis’ Matt Eberflus and San Francisco’s Robert Saleh, reportedly the first candidate to receive a second interview).

The Brady and Staley interviews at least show that Douglas has an open mind in terms of looking for innovators. Doug Pederson, who parted ways with the Eagles on Monday just three years after winning a Super Bowl (while Douglas was in Philadelphia’s front office), once was that sort of coach. He certainly wasn’t this season and isn’t guaranteed to get a call from Douglas to interview, according to some reports, so Jets fans shouldn’t panic just yet.

I’d also be wary of Tennessee offensive coordinator Arthur Smith despite the development he helped engineer in quarterback Ryan Tannehill, a Gase casualty from their Miami days. Smith’s designs, featuring pre-snap motion and play-action passing, would be a breath of fresh air in New York, but I can’t overlook his penchant for early-down runs.

Still, as I noted in a prior column, a head coach with an offensive bent is preferable, since a successful separate coordinator would always be at risk of getting poached. If it ends up that Douglas can persuade Daboll, who took a once-erratic Josh Allen and molded him into an All-Pro in three seasons, to bypass more attractive jobs to work with Fields, Jets fans, even the last stalwarts going down with the Darnold ship should be pumped.

For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Devils and Jets, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.

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