Can the arrival of Kirk Cousins give the New York Jets the identity behind center they have sought since Joe Namath?
Perhaps like no other position in sports, the quarterback stands as the face of the franchise he plays for. New York Jets fans are painfully aware of this for all the wrong reasons. When you think of the Green Bay Packers, you think of Bart Starr, Brett Favre, and Aaron Rodgers. When one thinks of the Indianapolis Colts, they think of Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck. The Denver Broncos identity for years was the right arm of John Elway. The Dolphins won their two Super Bowls with Bob Griese and saw passing records smashed with Dan Marino. Even the mighty Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s, with their “Steel Curtain” defense, had Terry Bradshaw as their leader.
In the history of the Jets, the only quarterback that had that type of presence was Joe Willie Namath. When the Jets signed him to a then-record contract in 1965, he was known as “Broadway Joe”. Anytime the Jets were mentioned, Namath was the person that was mentioned first.
Many quarterbacks have come and gone since Namath but none have yet to grab the spotlight of playing in the “city that never sleeps”. There have been seasons and moments where it looked like the Jets had found their next “guy,” but it never lasted.
In the early 1980s, Richard Todd led the Jets back to the postseason for the first time since the NFL-AFL merger, while also leading them to the AFC Championship. However, Todd never got over his five-interception performance in the “Mud Bowl” and was gone soon after.
In the mid-80s Ken O’Brien led Gang Green to the postseason in consecutive years showing sensational accuracy and posting solid TD/INT numbers but never won a postseason game.
Vinny Testaverde and Chad Pennington each led the Jets to the postseason and put together incredible individual seasons. In 1998, Testaverde threw for 29 TD and just seven INT, leading the Jets to a 12-4 record and their only first-round bye since the merger. Unfortunately for the Jets, Testaverde was unable to lift the Jets into the Super Bowl, as they could not hold a 10-0 second-half lead in the AFC Championship Game at Denver.
Pennington threw 22 TD and just five INT during the 2002 season while posting the best quarterback rating in team history at 104.2. His exploits were good enough to lead the Jets to just their second and last division title since the merger, but his team fell short against the Steelers in the AFC Divisional Round.
Mark Sanchez was supposed to be the next “Namath” and was handed the reigns to the Jets offense in his rookie season. Although he struggled with a 12 TD/20 INT ratio in his rookie season, the Jets reached the AFC Championship Game before losing to the Colts.
The next season Sanchez had much better stats, throwing for 17 TD and 13 INT while passing for over 3,200 yards. Once again, the Jets reached the AFC Championship Game but were unable to overcome a 24-0 deficit.
Since then the search has gone on without anyone being able to put up consistent numbers in consecutive seasons. Ryan Fitzpatrick set the team record for TD passes with 32 in 2015, but fell short in leading the Jets to the postseason. In 2016, Fitzpatrick and the Jets fell apart, leading to yet another quarterback change.
Who knows if Kirk Cousins can be the man to lift the Jets to heights they haven’t seen since the AFL-NFL merger? The one thing that can be said is that no other free agent quarterback has ever joined the Jets with the resume that Cousins has.
Cousins has thrown for over 25 TDs and 4,000 yards in each of his last three seasons. Only one Jets quarterback in history has thrown for over 4,000 yards (Namath in 1967). Only O’Brien has thrown for over 25 TDs in consecutive seasons. No Jets quarterback has done so in three straight seasons, not even Namath.
Looking back at team history, the only free agent quarterback the Jets signed in his prime was Neil O’Donnell and that was a disaster. Gang Green finished 1-15 in 1996 with him at the helm. O’Donnell was gone after the 1997 season as Bill Parcells wanted to go in a different direction and never again saw the success he did after leading the Steelers to Super Bowl 30.
Who knows if Cousins is the man to lead this team for seasons to come, but Jets fans have been waiting for a long time for a quarterback with his qualifications to lead this franchise. His age (30) and success in the last three seasons would be a welcome change to a position always filled with such inconsistency.