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My Large-Headed Adult Son: Sam Darnold and the Quest for One Great Athlete in This Miserable Life

Joe Namath won a Super Bowl. Chad Pennington had an impressive completion percentage. Mark Sanchez won some games. (Sort of.) But after nearly 60 years, Gang Green has never had a truly transcendent QB. Is that about to change?

Sam Darnold standing profile Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Is Sam Darnold going to save the Jets? Who knows? Will he save … the world? It’s still too early to tell. But to all of the Jets fans out there who hope to protect themselves from the continued emotional horror that is rooting for whichever unfortunate individual has been shackled with the burden of quarterbacking this godforsaken franchise, we say: Life is too short. Darnold is audibling at practice! He’s throwing three touchdowns on a single preseason drive! His jawline could clog the Hudson River! So, rather than tempering the hysteria emanating from the Garden State, we’re diving right in. Welcome to Darnold Day!

Broadway Joe Namath predicted and then won the New York Jets a Super Bowl in 1969. Four years earlier, he was chosen in the first round by NFL and AFL teams, and first overall in the latter draft by the Jets. He is an icon without peer in the team’s history. But Namath’s career completion percentage is 50.2. He threw 170 touchdowns and 215 interceptions for New York. His 5.9 percent pass interception rate is among the worst for players with more than 2,000 pass attempts in league history. He was under .500 as a starter in his NFL career. Joe Namath was a bad quarterback.

Richard Todd, like Namath, played under Bear Bryant at Alabama, where he never lost an SEC game and ended his collegiate career with a Sugar Bowl victory. He was selected sixth overall in 1976, and Namath was promptly deposed as the starter and then released. Todd was ascendant. But Todd infamously threw reporter Steve Serby into a locker before throwing 138 interceptions in just 102 games played for the Jets. He, too, was under .500 in his career. Richard Todd was a bad quarterback.

Ken O’Brien was born in Rockville Centre, New York—prime Jets Country. The NCAA Division II UC Davis QB shocked the world when he was selected by the team with the 24th overall pick. He made two Pro Bowls, led 16 game-winning drives, and was the first player in NFL history to throw for 400 yards in a game and compile a perfect 158.3 quarterback rating. But in that 1983 draft, he was chosen three picks ahead of the presumptive Jets quarterback of the future, a man who would go on to break nearly every passing record in league history as a member of the team’s archrival Dolphins before gliding into Canton: Dan Marino. Ken O’Brien was a bad quarterback.

Chad Pennington was the 18th overall pick in the 2000 NFL draft and became the second-most accurate signal-caller in NFL history. He is tied for 22nd in all-time pass interception percentage with Joe Montana, Steve Young, Steve McNair, Andrew Luck, and Philip Rivers. He was a Rhodes Scholar finalist and a two-time Comeback Player of the Year winner. But his arm strength was weak and he was injury-prone. He threw for about half as many touchdowns as Namath, for half as many yards, won half as many games and zero Super Bowls. Chad Pennington was a bad quarterback.

Mark Sanchez, in his first season as the no. 5 overall pick in the 2009 NFL draft, took a first-time head coach to the AFC championship game, won four playoff games in two years, and has a career postseason passer rating of 94.3. He also ran into a lineman’s backside, flopped to the ground with an unforgettable thud, and fumbled the ball. Mark Sanchez was a truly bad quarterback.

Sam Darnold was a highly decorated Pac-12 two-year starter and Rose Bowl champion who became the no. 3 overall selection in the 2018 NFL draft. He has thrown for one touchdown and one interception in two preseason games played. He has an enormous head and is my large adult son. He is … a good quarterback?

The New York Jets are entering their 59th season and have never had a quarterback that we could describe—ironically, sentimentally, or otherwise—as “elite.” This is an ongoing, generational crisis curdling into existential despair. The team has drafted six QBs in the first round in that span, and they’re all bad. Except, maybe, for Sam Darnold. Sweet, sweet Darnold. What pressure on the 21-year-old. He is blessed with a strong arm and a throwing motion that looks like a rubber band snapping around rolled newspaper. He has escapability, spatial awareness, surprising athleticism. Men in windsor knots and aggressively plaid-patterned suits love to talk about the kid’s tools. Moxy and guile and talent. He is also cursed with a cranium necessitating its own weather system. The kid’s head is big. And not in the He needs to focus on the game and stop sliding into the DMs of porn stars kind of way. In the Wears an 8 7/8–sized New Era fitted kind of way. It’s becoming a bit of a running joke.

Sam, as he is known in my home, is just another player larded with expectation and inexperience, a doe in a hunter’s forest. Or, maybe, hope against hope, he is the predator, a player on the precipice of taking over his sport with a fine-grained combination of physical ability and ineffable leadership qualities. A prototype, a dream boy, a Jeter. Or maybe he’s a massive bust with a big ole jaw.

The very best thing about this moment in time is also the worst: I have no idea what’s going to happen. Perhaps we will awake one day in November to learn that callous zealots run our governmental bodies and vicious beasts stalk the streets. But if the Jets enter Week 10 with a 6-3 record and Sam is under center, I will find cold comfort in that world. That’s called misguided desperation. I’m being melodramatic, but only slightly, because Jets fandom is a pox, passed down from generations like a bedeviled heirloom, decades of memories infecting a green-and-white shroud. I watch games while clenching both knees, gently rocking back and forth. I never yell, at work or at home, unless the Jets are playing. I am stoic and situationally removed. Except when I hear Ian Eagle’s voice. I am cursed.

And yet, there is Sam. Look at him throw.

I hope you stopped before you got to the drive-ending red zone interception. That was painful. Let’s forget about that. Let’s look at this instead.

What can we expect of Sam Darnold? He has already lived 10 lives in the minds of Jets fans. A conquering hero, or more likely, a mediocre player, or more likely still, a figure responsible for apocalyptic overreaction and overwrought think pieces. In the case of the Jets, a team with just four Hall of Fame players in its six decades, he is the most important player since Joe Namath, the highest draft pick, the most gifted and touted prospect since then, too. If he doesn’t pan out, the aforementioned melodrama will become something more hostile. There are a select few franchises that operate under cover of doom, monuments to bad luck, mismanagement, and spectral pain—the Browns, the Vikings, the Bills, the Bucs, the Lions, and that bastion of big-city buffoonery, the Jets. Four of those teams have new quarterbacks this season, a fact not terribly surprising because good teams—historically successful franchises—find essential players and commit to them. As a fan, I am still waiting for a player in a sport—any sport—on a team that I root for who will reign for a decade, break records, scale the league, win the big one, and remain a decent human being throughout that period. Someone like Aaron Rodgers. Imagine rooting for Aaron Rodgers. Must be wonderful, as carefree as a springtime breeze, every Sunday a new excuse to love again.

This is a lot to ask for any team, and especially for a cursed one. And even more to ask of a 21-year-old. Sam Darnold doesn’t need to be Aaron Rodgers. He doesn’t need to be Peyton Manning or Joe Montana. He doesn’t need to be Tom Brady or Warren Moon or Bart Starr or Otto Graham. He doesn’t need to be Johnny Unitas. He just needs to be Sam. And he better be perfect.