Josh McCown‘s numbers weren’t legendary, but his brief New York Jets tenure brought stability to one of the most unsteady spots in sports.
If Josh McCown was an All-Pro in any attribute, the journeyman quarterback knew how to take a joke. McCown’s professional football career took him to 11 different cities. His sense of self-deprecation never got lost in the moving vans.
McCown was able to loan his game jerseys to his daughter and her friends and still had a few left over. When asked to compare himself to fellow NFL senior citizen Tom Brady, he remarked “other than the age, there’s probably not a lot of similarities”.
That skill departed the NFL on Monday afternoon. McCown announced his retirement via an essay on The Players’ Tribune. It ends a career that began as a third-round pick of the Arizona Cardinals in 2002. He was quick to acknowledge his professional career wasn’t true to his vision, but nonetheless expressed pride and gratitude in his departing remarks.
“I wanted to be a franchise quarterback. I wanted to bring a Super Bowl to Arizona. I wanted to retire a Cardinal,” McCown said in the essay. “I don’t shy away from the journeyman label. I embrace it, full force. So if you would have told me back then that I would go on to play for 10 different NFL teams over the next 17 years, I would have said, “Shoot, 17 years? I’ll take it. But 10 different teams? No way…”
McCown played for 11 different professional football teams over the past 17 years, including the Hartford Colonials of the defunct United Football League. In the NFL decalogue, he tallied 17,707 yards and 99 touchdown passes. The last landmark of his football journey was MetLife Stadium, home of the New York Jets.
To the naked eye and the casual fan, McCown could disappear from memory rather quickly. But a closer analysis of recent Jets history could cement McCown in the more prominent sections of the team archives.
It’s no secret that the Jets have been cursed when it comes to the quarterback position. The antics of Joe Namath, on and off the field, remain talked about to this day. Since his 1976 departure, the Jets have sought a successor, but long-term stability has proved elusive. Sometimes, flashes of brilliance emerge, but are quickly snuffed out by injuries (Chad Pennington), age (Vinny Testaverde), stars past their prime (Boomer Esiason/Brett Favre) or general ineffectiveness (Mark Sanchez, Geno Smith, countless others). In surely no coincidence, the team has entered its fifth consecutive decade sans a Super Bowl.
McCown’s status really didn’t fit any of those categories. H arrived in East Rutherford in 2017, an awkward crossroads for both he and the Jets. The prior two years were spent as placeholder quarterback for the Cleveland Browns, who were basically counting down the days until Baker Mayfield announced his draft entry. Some saw McCown as a veteran mentor to younger throwers, as college stars Christian Hackenberg and Bryce Petty were the other quarterbacks on the roster at the time. McCown wound up beating them both out for the starting job, his ascendence somewhat aided by a Petty injury during a preseason game.
The veteran McCown was at the helm, but the rest of the Jets were very young. Their Week 1 roster was the sixth-youngest in football (25.62 median age), setting the stage for uncertainty. Football prognosticators scoffed at the Jets’ 2017 fortunes. Many were willing to give the Jets divisional rivals two easy wins. USA Today even went as far as to doom them to 0-16 infamy (a fate McCown’s former employers in Cleveland wound up suffering instead). An already downtrodden squad seemed destined for complete humility.
Yet, McCown made sure things ran relatively smoothly, much to the shock of the Jets’ countless doubters.
The first two games were foreseen slogs. Never known for showstopping box scores (save for a 2013 period as a Jay Cutler injury-induced starting stretch in Chicago), McCown failed to crack 200 in his first two games, both Jets losses. But in Week 3, helped put the race to imperfection on ice, doing so when divisional rival Miami came to visit.
In that game, McCown completed 18-of-23 passes, one of which was a 69-yard scoring hookup with Robby Anderson. He wound up throwing for 249 yards as the Jets triumphed 20-6. In the late stages of the second quarter, the lead was at a mere 3-0. A first-down run from Bilal Powell was wiped out by a holding penalty, one of 10 infractions the Jets tallied at that afternoon.
The Jets’ young linemen pouted as the penalties piled up. McCown brought them back down to Earth.
“I had five guys madder than all get at. They played it so quickly that they didn’t see how it could be a penalty,” McCown said after the game, per the New York Post’s Brian Costello. “I’m like ‘Guys, come on, let’s come back, we’re going to get them the next play. That’s the mentality you have to have. It’s a next-play mentality, next-game mentality in this league.”
One player later, McCown found Anderson for the score that proved to be the game-winner.
“Those are the little things when you’re a young team, young unit coming together,” McCown added. “Those are kind of bricks in the process that you stack because it grows you. That was a good moment for us because we’re learning, hey you have to flush that last play good or bad and move on.”
A week later, McCown led the Jets to an overtime victory over the future AFC finalists from Jacksonville. After two touchdowns in a 17-14 win over his former employers from Cleveland, the Jets stood out an improbable 3-2. The streak marked the first three-game winning streak of McCown’s career. Like any proud mentor, he praised the job his young comrades were doing.
“They say be at your best when your best is needed,” McCown said via the NY Post, this through George Willis. “At that moment we stepped up. Every guy made a play here and there. And the drive before half helped us get some momentum and get out of the funk we were in.”
Times hardened for the Jets after a visit from a familiar foe: the New England Patriots. The season was forever twisted by a brutally stolen touchdown that declared Austin Sefarian-Jenkins before breaking the goal line. It was the deciding factor in a 24-17 loss. Lost in the chaos was a 354-yard performance from McCown, the highest output of his Jet career and a personal best over two calendar years.
The Jets’ result sputtered afterward, as they went 2-9 the rest of the way. McCown himself was lost for the season after he broke his hand during a Week 14 loss in Denver. One week prior, he put up 331 yards and three total touchdowns, including the game-winner from one yard out in the penultimate minute. The 38-31 win over the Kansas City Chiefs was the Jets’ last of the season.
2017 alone could’ve ensured McCown left his eternal mark on the Jets’ history books. He finished the year with a career-best 2,926 yards, 18 touchdowns, and a 94.5 passer rating. The latter mark is the fourth-best tally in Jets history.
The effect McCown had on the Jets’ better-than-expected year was recognized in the end. He was named the winner of the team MVP award named after Curtis Martin. His prowess off the field was also acknowledged when reporters named him the Kyle Clifton “Good Guy” award winner.
“To be a part of this group has been very rewarding,” McCown said after earning the win, per Ethan Greenberg of NYJets.com. “It’s just fun to watch a group of men come together and work hard throughout the spring to try and accomplish the goal.”
A reminder of McCown’s mortality came when a winter trade with the Indianapolis Colts shot the Jets up to the third pick of the 2018 NFL Draft. With the Browns taking Mayfield and the New York Giants passing on a quarterback entirely, the Jets were free to choose from a talented throwing class. They eventually went with USC product Sam Darnold.
Weeks prior, however, the Jets made the move of adding the free agent McCown to a one-year deal. Darnold was now armed with one of the most experienced teachers the NFL had to offer. It just so happened that the instructor was going to dress with him on Sundays.
McCown went into 2018 with a slight assurance he would at least begin the year as the starter. When that didn’t pan out, not a single protest escaped from him.
Thus, he sealed his place in Jets history.
Darnold is perhaps the most legitimate heir to Namath the Jets have had yet. The first stages of his NFL tenure were molded by McCown and began his career on a strong note. Darnold never missed an opportunity to say so himself.
Humorous synchronicity was on display during the preseason. On the field, it was all business, as the special relationship helped the future of Jets football take his first steps.
Asked to reveal the catalyst from a three-game stretch in December that saw him throw for six touchdowns and a 106.1 passer rating, Darnold flat out admitted: “I really do just think it was just watching Josh”.
“Just the way he went about studying the plays that are in the game plan, it’s literally everything; walk through, practice, how he treated everything,” Darnold said. “I think it was just awesome to be able to learn and watch him. That’s the reason for me playing a little bit better these last couple games.”
Free of complaint, McCown relished his mentor role.
“It’s been fun. I think more than anything because of the type of person that Sam is and the way he carries himself,” McCown complimented. “You just feel like a worthy investment, you feel like when you spend that extra time and talk through plays, he’s a guy that soaks it up and takes it to the field and puts his own spin on it. Looking forward to how he continues to grow in his career, it’s been great working with him, it’s fun we have a lot of laughs and a lot of good times getting to know one another.”
Three more starts awaited McCown after Darnold suffered a November injury. When the season ended, McCown was once again a free agent. Retirement may have already been on his mind as he spoke with ESNY.
Like many of his NFL stops, McCown was not blessed with longevity in New York. He never spent any more than four seasons in any one place, but, in just half that time, he made New York home on the field and off.
“They’ve meant the world to me,” McCown said of the Jets. “The people in this organization, they treat each guy with respect and treat people the right way. It starts from the top down from (Chairman/CEO Christopher Johnson) down to management, coaches, everybody. It’s been a great experience and I appreciate that.”
Home is why McCown is finally walking away. As he prepared for what became the final game of his NFL career, he expounded on stories of going ice skating at Rockefeller Center on New Year’s Eve.
Football duties will continue, as McCown is set to make his analyst debut on ESPN’s Wednesday edition of NFL Live. But he’s glad he can finally watch his family flourish.
“Where they’re down in North Carolina and I’m up here working. Those are a lot of things that we’ll talk through. But obviously, I understand where their support is, always. They’ve been great with me,” McCown said back in December. “They’re very supportive of me. My life’s been incredible in this whole ride. More than anything, just where their ages are and where they’re at, it’s just understanding that you can’t (get) this time back, when they’re in high school, obviously, with the dynamic that we have, especially with my boys playing ball.”
In his retirement essay, McCown was sure to thank his familial support staff.
“I played for 10 NFL teams, plus a stop to play with the Hartford Colonials in the UFL. So there was a lot of moving around and a lot of time spent away from my family. And Natalie held it down at every turn,” McCown said of his wife and the mother of his four children. “She was a rock. She made it so I could go and do my job with a clear head, knowing that the kids were good and that everything at home was taken care of.”
With his on-field journey concluded, he can now spend time with the greatest support staff he has had in his career.
“It’s been one heck of a journey,” McCown said in his conclusion. “And I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.”
It’s not often a journeyman quarterback can find a home in one of his 11 different cities. But, knowing McCown, he’d probably be proud to end his tenure on a note that was anything but ordinary.