New York Jets Sam Darnold
(Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

The New York Jets have developed an unearned reputation for ruining quarterback prospects. In reality, it’s their scouting ability that needs work.

Kyle Newman

With the New York Jets and Trevor Lawrence seemingly on a collision course, many former players, members of the media, and fans are telling Lawrence to avoid the team. They believe that the Jets have a history of ruining quarterbacks fueled by dysfunction.

For the most part, that’s simply not true. In fact, the Jets have a history of surrounding elite quarterback prospects with as much talent as possible to succeed, though there are exceptions.

To prove this point, we’re going to look at every quarterback the New York Jets have ever taken in the first round.

1962: New York Titans select, Sandy Stephens, Minnesota

In the second AFL draft, the New York Titans selected Sandy Stephens fifth overall. Stephens was the second quarterback off the board, Roman Gabriel went first overall. He was also selected in the second round of the NFL draft by the Cleveland Browns.

Both teams told Stephens that they wanted him to move to a fullback. He refused and spurned them both, turning to the CFL. Stephens was unsuccessful in the CFL and nearly died in a car crash in 1964.

Two years later he found his way to the AFL with the Kansas City Chiefs as a fullback. He never got the chance to play quarterback in the NFL and he retired in 1968.

1965: New York Jets select, Joe Namath, Alabama

Joe Namath is one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. During his playing career, he set a number of records, including becoming the league’s first 4,000-yard passer.

He was surrounded by elite talent. Don Maynard was a Hall of Fame receiver, Winston Hill was a Hall of Fame left tackle, and he had one of the league’s best rushing tandems in Emerson Boozer and Matt Snell. There’s no doubt the Jets did everything they could to set Namath up for success.

It worked. Namath won the New York Jets only Super Bowl and was later inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. There’s little doubt the Jets helped turn Namath into one of the all-time greats.

1976: Jets select, Richard Todd, Alabama

Richard Todd is one of the greatest draft busts in New York Jets history. Selected sixth overall to replace Namath, Todd was a failure in every way. So the question needs to be asked, did the Jets ruin the elite quarterback prospect or was it a failure in scouting?

Let’s start with his supporting cast. Todd played double-digit games in six seasons with the Jets. During that time, Todd played with Wesley Walker, Rich Caster, Mickey Schuler, Freeman McNeil, and one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. It’s safe to say Todd had an above-average supporting cast during his time with the team.

Despite that, Todd struggled. He threw more interceptions than touchdowns in all but two seasons in his career. He had his moments, leading the league in yards per attempt in 1979. Like many Jets quarterbacks, Todd showed flashes of brilliance around a disappointing overall game.

It’s hard to blame the team when they surrounded him with talent. Todd even had a stable head coaching situation as Walt Michaels coached Todd nearly his entire career.

It seems clear that was a failure in scouting rather than a failure in development.

1983: Jets select, Ken O’Brien, UC Davis

The greatest sin that Ken O’Brien ever committed was not being Dan Marino.

When the New York Jets were on the clock in the 1983 NFL Draft, the whole world expected Dan Marino to be the pick. The Jets shocked the world by taking Ken O’Brien. They lived to regret that decision.

However, O’Brien was a decent quarterback for a time. It’s easy to lose O’Brien’s time at the helm in the Marino failure, but he was a league-average quarterback with some years better and some years worse. Very much like Eli Manning was for the Giants, except without two Super Bowl victories.

O’Brien was a two-time Pro-Bowler. His greatest season is arguably his second as a starter, 1985. Despite an awful offensive line, he was sacked a league-high 62 times, O’Brien led the league in passer rating, interception rate, and yards per attempt.

O’Brien was the quintessential game manager. He limited interceptions where he could and he always kept the offense competitive. He was never elite, and he wasn’t going to win many games on the back of his arm. O’Brien was an average quarterback for his era, at least until he fell off a cliff in 1989.

The Jets developed O’Brien, helping him turn into the best quarterback he could be. Again, this was a failure in scouting. Had the Jets drafted Marino the history of the franchise would have forever been changed.

2000: Jets select, Chad Pennington, Marshall

The New York Jets didn’t select another quarterback in the first round until Chad Pennington in 2000. The Marshall quarterback was the fourth of five first-round picks the Jets made that year.

By the time he took over as the full-time starter in 2002, Pennington was surrounded by top-end talent. Curtis Martin and Kevin Mawae are in the Hall of Fame, and Laverneous Coles, Santana Moss, and Wayne Chrebet are one of the greatest wide receiver trios in team history.

Pennington thrived in that offense. He led the NFL in completion percentage, touchdown rate, and passer rating in his first year as a starter. Pennington never reached those heights again due to injuries.

He twice tore his rotator cuff and dealt numerous other injuries on top of that. Despite that, Pennington was still a strong quarterback on the field. He was always accurate, knew how to find the end zone, and captained a strong offensive unit.

Pennington is the only player in NFL history to win Comeback Player of the Year twice. That’s a testament to his talent and the job the Jets did developing him.

It’s a shame that injuries hampered Pennington the way they did, but that’s not the Jets fault. They had a strong offensive line in front of him and numerous weapons to make their run-heavy and quick passing offense work.

2009: Jets select, Mark Sanchez, USC

No quarterback better represents the New York Jets’ poor scouting ability than Mark Sanchez.

Coming into 2009 the Jets were contenders. They had just barely missed the playoffs in 2008 after Brett Favre fell off a cliff late in the season due to a shoulder injury. With the right quarterback in place, they were ready to take over the league. So, they traded up to the fifth spot to draft USC quarterback Mark Sanchez.

He came and in and looked promising. The numbers were awful, but Sanchez got better throughout the year and led the team to the AFC championship game. Surrounded by the best offensive line in the NFL, the best running game in the NFL, Jerricho Cotchery, Braylon Edwards, and Dustin Keller the Jets offensive looked set for the future.

Sanchez continued to develop in 2010 proving to be a better player. He cut his interceptions nearly in half and threw for more touchdowns and passing yards. Again surrounded by one of the best running games in the NFL and the Jets added Santonio Holmes to their receiving core.

Again the Jets made the AFC championship game, only to fall short due to a horrific offensive performance in the first half.

Fans had begun to turn on Sanchez by 2011, but some still had hoped he could be the future. Again he took a step forward, but he was far from a starting-caliber quarterback. His 78.2 passer rating, a career-best as a starting quarterback, was among the worst in the NFL.

Sanchez fell off a cliff in 2012 and the Jets moved on. What else was there to see? They had surrounded Sanchez with arguably the most talented roster in the NFL, a stable coaching system with Rex Ryan and Brian Schottenheimer, and gave him every chance to succeed. Despite that, Sanchez proved to be one of the worst quarterbacks in the league.

There’s simply no basis to argue that the Jets ruined him. If anything, the evidence proves that Sanchez ruined the Jets’ best hopes at a Super Bowl since 1969.

2018: New York Jets select, Sam Darnold, USC

If anyone has a case on this list for being ruined, it’s Sam Darnold. The Jets have consistently failed to surround him with talent or stability at head coach.

Unlike the other busts on this list, Darnold has had multiple head coaches in his first few years. Neither was a success and both actively harmed the offense.

Worse than that, the Jets simply don’t have any talent around him. Sanchez and Todd at least both had the top-end talent to succeed. Darnold doesn’t have anything close to top-end talent.

He’s had the worst offensive line situation in the NFL over three combined seasons, no running game to speak of, and little talent at receiver. Maybe a better quarterback makes it work, but no quarterback is making the Jets an above-average offense with the talent Darnold’s had in his first three seasons.

He’s shown flashes of brilliance and over stretches of his career proved he could be elite. During the final four games of his rookie season, Darnold was the PFF’s highest-graded quarterback. Over the second half of the 2019 season, Darnold was top-10 in the NFL in passer rating. That talent is clearly in there, but poor talent around him and poor coaching have clearly made him regress.

Recency bias certainly shows that the Jets ruin quarterbacks, and their lack of quarterback talent in franchise history only confirms that to some. However, upon a deeper look it’s clear that the Jets have only ever ruined one top-end quarterback prospect.

The people who ruined him, Adam Gase and Mike Maccagnan, are both going to be gone after the 2020 season. With a new head coach, a general manager building an offense for his quarterback, and another elite quarterback prospect coming in, the Jets look set to make moves in the future. It’s all going to be about how well they scout.

If they get a talented quarterback in the 2021 NFL Draft, whether that’s Trevor Lawrence or not, they’re going to be set up for success with an incredibly young team. It’s all going to be about whether or not that guy is an NFL quarterback or just another dud in a long line of poorly scouted Jets quarterbacks.

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