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The Jets Pulled the Upset of the Year. It Could Change the Course of NFL History.

Just how meaningful was the Jets’ win over the Rams? It resets the Trevor Lawrence sweepstakes, reshapes the conversation surrounding Sam Darnold’s future, and could reorient the AFC pecking order for years to come.

AP Images/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Jets pulled the upset of the year and will avoid the stain of going 0-16. All it may have cost them is the best quarterback prospect of a generation. The 0-13 Jets stunned the Rams 23-20 on Sunday despite entering the matchup as 17-point underdogs. It was just the fifth time on record that a 17-plus-point underdog won an NFL game outright. New York is no longer in pole position to draft Clemson star Trevor Lawrence, the most coveted college quarterback since Andrew Luck in 2012. Entering Sunday, the Jets had a 74 percent chance of getting the first pick in the draft, according to Math God Steve Kornacki. Now they have just a 32 percent chance. The Jets sold their souls to buy peanuts for the elephants.

The win brings the Jets to 1-13, tied with the Jaguars for the NFL’s worst record. But Jacksonville has a weaker strength of schedule, which would serve as the tiebreaker and give the Jaguars the first pick if both teams finish 1-15. Unless the Jags win one of their final two games against the Bears or Colts, Jacksonville will secure the rights to select Lawrence, a 6-foot-6 220-pounder who is the real-life version of Sunshine from Remember the Titans.

Lawrence is 34-1 as Clemson’s starting quarterback, with his team boasting an average margin of victory of 33.6 points in those games. He’s passed for 88 career touchdowns against 16 interceptions, and effortlessly hits his receivers deep downfield with pinpoint accuracy. While Lawrence could theoretically choose to return to school before entering the 2022 draft, that seems unlikely given his colossal hype. On a recent edition of Monday Night Countdown, ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said, “The only quarterbacks who had kind of been locked into that no. 1 spot for a long time going in were John Elway, Peyton Manning, and Andrew Luck, so he’s going to be expected to be that elite franchise quarterback who has a long, illustrious career and hopefully wins some Super Bowls.”

Before this weekend, I spoke to ESPN Jets reporter Rich Cimini about the team’s outlook heading into 2021. Cimini has been covering the Jets for 33 years, a stretch during which their top quarterbacks have been Boomer Esiason, Vinny Testaverde, Chad Pennington, Brett Favre, Mark Sanchez, and Sam Darnold. Cimini sees the franchise drafting another quarterback this spring. “If they get the first pick, for me it’s a no-brainer, they’ll take Trevor,” Cimini says. “And if they get the second pick, [general manager Joe] Douglas really likes Darnold, but I think he has to look at it logically and I think he’d still pick the quarterback with that pick.”

This Jets season was dark enough before Sunday, but Lawrence was the light at the end of the Holland Tunnel. That future just got darker. It’s not a stretch to say this stunning result could shape the NFL landscape for years to come. So what would the Jets do without Sunshine? And how could the rest of the league look in this new light?

What Would the Jets Do at No. 2?

It’s all but certain that the Jets will fire head coach Adam Gase at season’s end. That is the easy and cathartic part. Everything after will be harder. If they end up with the second pick, the Jets would have to sort through the class of 2021’s non-Lawrence quarterbacks to find the next face of their franchise. Those quarterbacks include:

  • Ohio State’s Justin Fields, who looked better than Lawrence for a large stretch of the 2019 season but who has been ineffective of late. He went 12-of-27 passing with no touchdowns and two interceptions in Saturday’s Big Ten championship game, and has four touchdowns against five picks in his last three games.
  • BYU’s Zach Wilson, who is tied for third in the FBS in passing touchdowns this season. Wilson has impressive improvisational ability but has excelled against mostly subpar competition. He also has a limited track record of playing at an elite level. He has completed 73.1 percent of his passes with 30 touchdowns and three interceptions in 2020; he completed just 62.4 percent of his passes with 11 touchdowns and nine picks in 2019.
  • Florida’s Kyle Trask, who leads the nation in touchdown passes (43) and passing yards per game (375). Yet while Trask can sling it, he’s easily the least mobile quarterback in this class. He has rushed for 54 yards in his college career.
  • North Dakota State’s Trey Lance, a fascinating prospect who went 16-0 in the FCS in 2019 but played just one game in 2020 after NDSU canceled its season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

I asked my Ringer colleague Danny Kelly, who’s spent approximately 17 million hours watching college football tape, for his thoughts on the 2021 draft’s non-Lawrence quarterbacks. He believes that Fields is the best of that bunch. Fields is an accurate, efficient passer who is also a devastating runner. The only other player he could see the Jets taking is Wilson, who can make strong throws even when his feet aren’t set properly. Both Fields and Wilson could be good NFL quarterbacks who have long and productive careers.

But neither of them is Trevor Lawrence. He was slated to be the savior of the NFL’s most hapless franchise. If the draft order holds, Jets fans will have to talk themselves into plan B. Remember, many Jets fans are also Knicks fans—the same ones who were desperate to land Zion Williamson in the 2019 NBA draft. Instead, Zion went to New Orleans and the Knicks picked RJ Barrett, a.k.a. Canadian Harrison Barnes. These fans have trust issues, and this Lawrence debacle is a fresh wound for a fan base whose scar tissue is so thick it’s surprising that the nerves aren’t dead.

There is also the consideration that evaluating quarterbacks in this draft will be even harder than usual because of the pandemic, which turned college football upside down (and exposed the cravenness that pervades every nook and cranny of the sport). NFL teams already have spotty track records scouting quarterbacks. How will they fare evaluating Lance, who has played one game in 2020? Or Fields, who had a great 2019 and then a bad three-game stretch this year that has constituted half of his season? The Jets could avoid this altogether by taking consensus top tackle Penei Sewell at no. 2 and acquiring a quarterback via free agency or trade. Matthew Stafford and Matt Ryan may be available. So could Carson Wentz, who was the franchise quarterback for the Eagles during GM Douglas’s tenure in Philadelphia.

Whatever New York does, it’s clear that the Jets need a quarterback. Darnold is heading into the final season of his contract in 2021, so it’s possible the team could choose to ride with him for one more year. If the Jets want to keep Darnold beyond that, though, they would have to pay him about $25 million in 2022. That’s a lot of money for a player whose passer rating this season ranks last in the NFL. Not only are Darnold’s numbers bad, but he also doesn’t have anyone incentivized to make excuses for him. Jets GM Douglas did not draft Darnold. Gase should soon be on his way out of town. Keeping Darnold over the next two seasons would cost roughly the same amount ($35 million) as the price of a rookie quarterback over the next four seasons. This could unfold in lots of ways, but none are as appealing as what appeared to be the Jets’ plan before this week.

What’s Next for Sam Darnold?

If the Jets select a quarterback with their top draft pick in April, the team has two options: It could keep Darnold around to be a mentor and eventual backup, or it could trade him. Keeping him would fall somewhere between awkward and toxic. It’s weird enough introducing your new girlfriend to your ex-girlfriend, but it’s weirder to do that as soon as you and your new girlfriend start dating. When the Cardinals drafted Kyler Murray in 2019, they wasted no time getting rid of 2018 first-round pick Josh Rosen. The Eagles are now experimenting with having Wentz and Jalen Hurts on their roster, and—shocker!—recent reports indicate that Wentz is not having a good time.

Even if the Jets wanted to keep Darnold around, his contract expires after next season. The Jets would be wise to get value for him instead of just letting him walk in free agency. But what could they get? That depends on whether teams think that Darnold can be a good NFL quarterback or if they believe the Jets ruined him.

There may be no bigger unknown this offseason than what Darnold could contribute to a contender. Over the past three seasons, Darnold has been perhaps the worst statistical quarterback in the NFL. Since he entered the league in 2018, 42 quarterbacks have thrown at least 500 passes. He ranks 41st out of those 42 in passer rating and adjusted yards per pass attempt. The only player he is ahead of in both stats is … Rosen, who’s currently on Tampa Bay’s practice squad.

But it is hard to separate Darnold’s shortcomings from the Jets’ deficiencies as a whole. The Jets have had the worst offense in the NFL over the last three seasons. Since Darnold entered the league, the Jets have ranked dead last in the following categories:

  • Points scored
  • Total yards
  • Yards per play
  • Net yards per pass play
  • First downs gained
  • Third downs converted
  • Percentage of third downs converted

That is just the metrics in which they rank last. Football is about gaining yards and scoring points, and no team has been outscored or outgained more than the Jets have.

Some evaluators swear that Darnold’s talent has been hidden by his hideous circumstances. How do you evaluate a quarterback on the NFL’s worst team? Is he a bad player, or is he just stuck in a bad situation? Former Lions quarterback and current ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky is firmly in the latter camp. Orlovsky argues that Darnold has all the traits required to be successful in the modern NFL, including accuracy, pocket mobility, and leadership.

“The question becomes ‘Well, why has he failed?’” Orlovsky says. “Has he failed because he doesn’t have the traits to succeed? No. He’s failed because the things and people [around him] have been atrocious.”

The Jets have had one of the league’s worst offensive lines for run blocking and pass blocking since Darnold’s been on the team. The best receiver he has played with is Robby Anderson. (Darnold’s USC skill-position group featuring wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and running back Ronald Jones is better than any combination he’s had in the NFL.) Darnold has also been dealing with Gase. Orlovsky says quarterback is not only the most difficult position in sports, but also the one that’s most dependent on the supporting cast. To that end, he compares quarterbacking to starring in a movie—the final product depends on the work of many different people coming together.

“Is The Dark Knight great [just] because of Heath Ledger’s performance? No,” Orlovsky says. “Is it great because it’s attached to the Batman series? No. Is it great because it was only in New York City? No. To play great quarterback in the NFL, it takes a great script to be written, and then a fantastic producer, and an awesome director, and an incredible lead actor and supporting actors, and a scene and setting.”

The Jets are not being directed by Christopher Nolan (though they do have a penchant for moving backward). Gase is the NFL’s version of Tommy Wiseau. An organizational improvement could show Darnold in a different light, because to this point he has been illuminated by dumpster fires. Former NFL staffer Nate Tice agrees that Darnold’s development has been stunted under Gase.

“The best comparison I could have [to Gase and Darnold] is Jeff Fisher’s last year with the Rams with Jared Goff,” Tice says. “Except Darnold did it for three years. So the leap that Goff made from Year 1 to Year 2 going from Fisher to [Sean] McVay, that’s the improvement [Darnold could make].”

Tice and Orlovsky both compare modern quarterbacking to basketball. Scheme can only do so much. There comes a point when a play breaks down and ball handlers must create their own shot. Deshaun Watson, Russell Wilson, and Justin Herbert can do that. Kirk Cousins and Jimmy Garoppolo cannot—they merely knock down open jumpers when a shot is designed for them. This is the difference between average NFL quarterbacks and great ones.

Talent evaluators around the league insist Darnold can create his own shot. And any lingering doubts about this being overly optimistic might be quashed by another recent success story: Ryan Tannehill. After spending an unexceptional stint playing for Gase, Tannehill blossomed into a fringe MVP candidate in Tennessee over the last 15 months. While he is not the same kind of player as Darnold is, it’s telling that Gase’s last franchise quarterback emerged as one of the league’s best at the position as soon as he escaped Gase’s grasp.

The question is whether Darnold can do what Tannehill did. He could fit nicely in Indianapolis, Chicago, Denver, or Pittsburgh, who will all need a new quarterback sooner or later. But the destination that best suits Darnold may be San Francisco. Garoppolo is due to make more than $53 million over the next two seasons, but the 49ers could cut him this offseason and save $50 million of that figure. If the Niners trade for Darnold, they could pay him about $35 million over the next two years and save $15 million from what they would have paid Jimmy G. And Darnold might be better than Jimmy immediately.

“The most important thing for Sam is to get in a system that allows him to excel,” Orlovsky says. “I’m tired of people telling me, ‘This guy’s a fit.’ I see a lot of people fit into clothes, and it’s clothes they shouldn’t wear.”

What Does This All Mean?

This weekend’s Jets-Rams game was supposed to be an easy win for the Rams. Instead, it may have been a butterfly effect moment that changes the next decade of the NFL. That might sound like hyperbole, but Lawrence is a prospect on par with Elway, Manning, and Luck. Any of those guys going to a different team would have fundamentally altered the course of league history.

If the Jags get the first pick, then the Jacksonville coaching job might become more sought after than the one in New York, giving the Jags a leg up on their preferred coach if they choose to move on from Doug Marrone. Bill Cowher’s reported interest in the Jets position may dry up without Lawrence in the picture. And Darnold getting booted from New York could lead to Garoppolo getting canned, or Philip Rivers or Ben Roethlisberger being sent to a farm upstate.

And with the quarterback situation changing in New York and Jacksonville, the power balance changes not just for two teams, but also for two divisions. If Lawrence goes to the Jets, he could send Bill Belichick into retirement and spend a decade dueling with Josh Allen and Tua Tagovailoa in the AFC East. Yet Lawrence is now likely going to Jacksonville, where he could be division rivals with fellow Clemson legend Deshaun Watson. The AFC hierarchy for the next 10 years may have shifted because Jared Goff threw across his body on a play-action rollout and was intercepted by Bryce Hall.

We are in a new timeline now. The Jets were counting on Sunshine, but they’ve put a new twist on Remember the Titans. That movie’s banner song is Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” with lyrics that famously go like this:

‘Cause baby, there ain’t no mountain high enough
Ain’t no valley low enough
Ain’t no river wide enough
To keep me from getting to you, babe

The Jets have just done the Jetsiest thing of all: They’ve found that mountain. They’ve fallen into that valley.