Keidel: In Sam Darnold, Jets Have Their Most Exciting Quarterback Since Joe Namath

Jason Keidel
August 16, 2019 - 1:22 pm
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If you tuned in to “Boomer & Gio” on Monday you were treated to a cup of Joe Namath. Broadway Joe did the media circuit this week, dropping his football wisdom on adoring Jets fans who are starved for the thing only he has delivered to the team and town - a Super Bowl title. 

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For those of us who were raised in the Big Apple during the '70s and '80s, we spent some time in Namath's nimbus, in tales of his big talk backed up by bigger deeds. He became more than a man, like the football version of Santa Claus - beloved and bigger than his physical contours. 

And though we all love that Joe is alive and lucid, his lazy, Beaver Falls accent in full effect, it's also haunting that he's still the emblem of the glory years.

With each ringless year, Namath grows in stature, the mythology a mushroom cloud over the Meadowlands. Our elders told us stories about his slick clothes, wild nightlife and perfect passing arm. Namath threw a football as if he were born with one under his arm. As Tom Jackson once said of Joe Namath: “he may not be the best QB of all-time, but he won the biggest game.” Namath was the face of that ethereal year in New York, when Hendrix hypnotized the crowd at Woodstock, the Mets won the World Series, and the Jets confounded the Colts in the Orange Bowl. 

Now, pretend you're a 22-year-old quarterback being asked to fill that fur coat, those white shoes and the role of a gridiron demigod. Joe Namath made winning cool for about five years; the Jets made losing their look for the next 45 years.  

Sam Darnold is the first Jets quarterback since Namath to channel this much hope through the team and the town. Just as Joe came from a football power (Alabama), Darnold made his name from a monolith (USC). Darnold checks all the boxes - for size and strength, for skill and will, for moxie and maturity. As a rookie he was the youngest quarterback to start an NFL game, and there was a sense that he only got better over the second half of his maiden season, making his sophomore season with the Jets a kind of ballot box on his football bona fides. 

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That's a lot to put on a young man. Most of us agree that playing QB in the NFL is the most important, if not the hardest, gig in sports. There are only 32 such jobs and yet the league can't properly fill them from a pool of seven billion people. Add to that the burden of Broadway Joe's legacy, and our projections, and the weight on Darnold's shoulder pads must be biblical.

Namath was the first to say he had the team to win, refusing to claim the credit for Super Bowl III. Likewise, Darnold needs more support than he got during last year's 4-12 eyesore. The Jets have beefed-up their roster, adding Le'Veon Bell in the backfield, drafting perhaps the best safety in the sport, and crafting a rabid pass rush that battered Atlanta last night. Darnold is growing into his role by learning to read a defense and by learning to lead an offense. If the preseason is any metric, then No. 14 looks poised for a quantum leap in stats and stature. 

For his part, Darnold seems to have a deep well of awareness and confidence. No moment seems too heavy for him. When he camped next to “Boomer & Gio,” Darnold handled himself with the perfect blend of humor and humility. He lives within his emotional means. 

But Jets fans have been burned before. Richard Todd got them to an AFC title game, and they were shut out by the Dolphins. They drafted Ken O'Brien over Dan Marino. They were ready for a Super Bowl march when Vinny Testaverde snapped his Achilles. Chad Pennington's balky shoulder doomed his reign. Mark Sanchez never grew into his "Sanchise" sobriquet.  

Sam Darnold in Jets camp
USA TODAY Images

Now it's Darnold's turn through the car wash of media and muscular defenses. If we're candid, Darnold feels different. There isn't a limp limb or a rap sheet or combative mien that would keep him from becoming a star. He's throwing darts this summer, zipping the pigskin through keyholes. The Jets have hitched their symbolic wagon to the kid, and it feels like he can pull it past December. 

You can't judge a quarterback entirely by numbers. One of the more idiotic assertions in sports history is that Namath doesn't belong in the Hall of Fame because he doesn't have the numbers. Tell that to Don Shula and the Colts. We think of NFL royalty around the Super Bowl, from Joe Montana to John Elway to Tom Brady. Yet more than once the Super Bowl-winning QB has either been a castoff (Jim Plunkett) or a retread (Nick Foles) or even a substitute (Jeff Hostetler). 

Winning is the main metric for an NFL QB. And for the first time in a long time, it feels like the Jets have a winner.

Follow Jason on Twitter: @JasonKeidel