The Jets’ Long Road to Sam Darnold
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — “You have a horseshoe up your ass.”
The words instinctively rolled off the tongue of Jets VP of player personnel Brian Heimerdinger, and were directed at the boss, GM Mike Maccagnan, who wouldn’t let himself believe this would happen. For two weeks, the rumor mill persisted that the Browns were going to pass on Sam Darnold for Josh Allen. So why in the world would he buy it spinning now that the first pick wouldn’t be either of those two?
The Browns select Baker Mayfield, quarterback, Oklahoma.
It was happening.
Heimerdinger was giddy, Maccagnan still nervous, not letting himself take anything in until word came back from the draft site in Texas that there was no trade action at the Giants’ table. But it was happening. He and coach Todd Bowles would finally have their quarterback.
When the Jets dealt up to the No. 3 spot in the draft in March, they’d identified three quarterbacks—Darnold, Mayfield, and UCLA’s Josh Rosen—they were good with. This was better than that.
As Saquon Barkley came off the board at 2, Maccagnan leaned over to Heimerdinger, sitting to his left, and said, “We … we … he just fell to us.” The GM then got up and walked around the front table in the war room, and over to Bowles and owner Christopher Johnson, who were seated to his right, so he could whisper to them, “Hey, this is not what we expected. I’m going to draft Sam Darnold here. You guys OK with that?”
Johnson shot back, “No, this is great.” And then Bowles, succinct as ever, simply said, “Let’s go.” Heimerdinger offered to call Darnold, but Maccagnan told him to wait, since the league wouldn’t let them turn the card in (for TV purposes) yet anyway, and he walked back past a row of pro scouts, who were working the phones, and three rows of college scouts, to a couple of kids with family connections to the team.
“So this is what’s going on—Sam Darnold just slipped to us,” Maccagnan said smiling to 12-year-old James and 10-year-old Noah. “I think I’m gonna draft Sam Darnold to be the Jets’ next quarterback. Are you OK with that?” Noah responded, “Uh-huh.” And James: “Yup.” Maccagnan gave each a fist-pound and stood, figurative horseshoe still lodged back where the sun doesn’t shine. Up in the front of the room, Heimerdinger was smiling.
“Can I please tell them to put Sam Darnold’s name on the card already?”
It’s hard to blame Maccagnan, or anyone in that room, for milking the moment. From the work done by Maccagnan, to Heimerdinger to college director Matt Bazirgan to national scout Zach Truty to area scout Brian Shields, and to Bowles, offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates and all the coaches, the process of getting to the quarterback they believe will lead this franchise for a decade was three-and-a-half years in the making.
Maccagnan spent the weeks leading up to his final draft as Texans college scouting director traveling with GM Rick Smith, head coach Bill O’Brien and QBs coach George Godsey to vet a 2014 quarterback class over which there was much disagreement league-wide—UCF’s Blake Bortles, Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater and Fresno State’s Derek Carr headed the group.
Just before the draft, Maccagnan’s wife, Betty, chimed in. She saw Bridgewater on TV and said to her husband, “I like that guy.” Why? She’d watched TV interviews, and said he came off as a good kid. Maccagnan went to the Texans’ video team and asked if they could pull that footage. And he took a lesson: With quarterbacks, who are basically management-level employees of NFL teams, every little piece of info can help.
That came with Maccagnan when he was hired as GM of the Jets in January 2015, and it’s not as if he wasn’t looking for what he landed this past April in his first three years with the Jets. He and his staff liked Oregon’s Marcus Mariota in 2015, but neither the Buccaneers nor the Titans were open to moving out of their spots. The next year the Jets had eyes for Cal’s Jared Goff, but they were picking 20th, and Maccagnan was principled about not selling the farm for any prospect this side of Andrew Luck.
All this meant treading water with Ryan Fitzpatrick in 2015, and doubling down on him the next year after a 10-win season. The Jets kept looking in the mean time, as Betty Maccagnan would advise them to, under every rock.
The first hint of Darnold crosses the Jets’ radar—Shields begins to hear Trojan coaches talk up a freshman quarterback lighting it up for the scout team. It’s the four-star recruit who had no problem joining a class with a five-star in it. That five-star, Ricky Town, had transferred to Arkansas in August 2015. Scouts hear these things from time to time. Sometimes they mean something. Sometimes they don’t. Shields files it away.
USC sophomore Max Browne, a former blue-chip recruit and team leader, is named the starting quarterback on Aug. 22. But Shields heard from the staff that the competition was “a lot closer than expected.” Heimerdinger came through campus during camp to look at Juju Smith-Schuster and was told the same thing by another coach, to the point where it seemed as if the Trojans coaches really wanted to put Darnold in there.
Head coach Clay Helton later concedes that Browne won the job largely because he was more experienced, which they saw as important with Alabama looming in Week 1.
OCTOBER 8, 2016
Some things scouts need to see live, and play speed is one. This strength of Darnold’s becomes obvious to Shields in his first live exposure to the redshirt freshman. Darnold had taken over the starting job in late September, and now it’s his third start, against a Colorado team that would win the Pac-12 South. SC is up 7-0 with 3:54 left in the first half, It’s first-and-10 at the Buffaloes’ 11-yard line.
Darnold takes the shotgun snap, and botches a play fake to tailback Justin Davis. But rather than dive on the ball, he coolly picks it up and races to the left boundary with a pack of rushers coming after him, then reverses field to buy time for tight end Tyler Petite to come open in the right flat.
Darnold pops the ball over the defense. Petite does the rest. Nine QBs out of 10 give up on that play, Shields thought. Darnold didn’t. The Trojans win by four.
OCTOBER 27, 2016
Maccagnan is in Los Angeles to watch Goff’s successor, Davis Webb, live. As is his habit, he buys a front-row seat behind the home bench to get a different perspective on players, and works the field before the game. On this Thursday night, he bumps into a buddy on the USC staff, who asks him whom he’s at the Coliseum to see.
“The Cal quarterback,” Maccagnan answers. His buddy responds by predicting he’d be back in a year or two to see the Trojans’ QB. Pointing to Darnold, the staffer says, “He’s got it.” He credits Darnold with changing everything for a Trojans team that started off 1-3 but would reel off nine straight wins under Darnold to finish the season.
JANUARY 2, 2017
Shields isn’t studying Darnold as he would a draft-eligible prospect, but it’s impossible to ignore what’s happening at SC—and how Darnold is handling the rise from unknown to college star. There’s something natural about it, and about how he leads. It shows up again in an epic Rose Bowl against Penn State.
The Trojans blow two early 13-point leads and trail 49-35 after a Saquon Barkley touchdown. SC star Adoree’ Jackson gets hurt on the ensuing kickoff. With his team deflated, Darnold calmly works the sideline, and then the coaches—“Relax, we’re winning the game.” Watching that display confirms to Shields everything he’d heard about Darnold—that he has a knack for going up to the right guy at the right time and saying the right thing.
This story of his cool would be brought up again and again, as Darnold’s version of Joe Montana’s “Hey, that’s John Candy” moment in Super Bowl XXIII.
Darnold and the Trojans come back from 14 points down in the fourth quarter to win, 52–49.
JANUARY 3, 2017
Heimerdinger had fallen asleep at halftime of that Rose Bowl classic, He wakes up to the headlines the next day. Knowing what the plan would be for the coming year, he goes into the office, two days after the Jets wrap up a 5-11 season, and breaks down the tape.
Biggest takeaway? Darnold shouldn’t be classified as a cookie-cutter USC QB, any more than Goff should have been knocked as a “spread” guy coming out of Cal or than Carson Wentz took hits for being from North Dakota State. Darnold is more of an improviser—Heimerdinger sees Tony Romo in his game—with the play speed that Shields recognized against Colorado showing up again.
MID- TO LATE JANUARY 2017
The tear-down’s coming and everyone knows it—the Jets have franchise-shifting decisions to make. One is what to do at quarterback. So Maccagnan sets his staff out with the task of breaking down not just 2017 draft prospects such as Mitch Trubisky, Deshaun Watson, Patrick Mahomes and DeShone Kizer, but also those a year off, like Rosen, Allen and Darnold.
The conclusion by the 2017 Senior Bowl: We’re fine waiting. It isn’t so much that the prospects aren’t great. It’s more that the Jets are focused on rebuilding their locker-room culture from the ground up, and, picking sixth overall, they like the strength of the 2017 class at other positions. So the team will sign Josh McCown and give the Christian Hackenberg experiment (the Penn State QB had been taken in the second round in ’16) another year.
APRIL 27, 2017
The Jets select LSU safety Jamal Adams with that sixth pick. Adams, like USC defensive lineman Leonard Williams in 2015, is a player Maccagnan never thought would fall to him, so the call was academic. Adams’s leadership—“a culture changer”—was lauded by the staff in Baton Rouge in a very rare way, and that will be a piece of the puzzle in how they assess the next year’s quarterbacks.
Sticking to the plan as it was set out, quarterback is never much of a consideration in the first round here, as it would have been with Mariota in 2015 or Goff in 2016.
There isn’t a Come-to-Jesus meeting, but Maccagnan gradually lets scouts like Bazirgan and Truty and Shields in on the plan to go all-in on vetting the next year’s quarterback class, with the acknowledgement that Allen and Rosen and Darnold would have to forgo eligibility to be in it. This means more live game exposure. More background work. And more focus on certain schools.
Ownership is apprised too, and at a critical time—with control of the team going from Woody Johnson to his brother Christopher, as the elder sibling prepares to become U.S. ambassador to the U.K.
Resources will be spilled into getting it right. The good news is, the numbers mean there might be multiple avenues to execute from in the 2018 draft, in search of a quarterback. Being really bad in 2017 is always one means—and cutting Eric Decker and David Harris will “help” there. But in this case, where three or four QBs might be in the mix, making a trade might be another one.
SEPTEMBER 1, 2017
The Jets trade defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson to the Seahawks for a second-round pick, which they see as ammunition for April.
SEPTEMBER 9, 2017
Jets communications czar Eric Gelfand is texting Maccagnan a day ahead of the opener, knowing the quarterback push was on, and conversationally asks, “Where you at?” Maccagnan, parked in his customary front-row seat, shoots back a somewhat grainy picture from the Coliseum of Darnold dropping back to throw.
That’s the start of a collection of photos from the fall. Maccagnan takes them of Mayfield and Rosen and Allen—basically his version of postcards from one big road trip of a 2017 college season. The Jets are in Buffalo the day after USC beats Stanford 42-24, and Maccagnan will arrive late, connecting off the red-eye from LAX. He catches an hour of sleep at the hotel before heading to the stadium in Orchard Park, where he’ll see Josh McCown and the Jets lose 21–12.
SEPTEMBER 16, 2017
Maccagnan is back at the Coliseum, one of five 2017 trips to see Darnold live, which adds to the 17 nights Heimerdinger would spend in L.A. during the season, and the steady presence of Shields around the two local QBs. This time the front-row seat pays off, with Maccagnan seeing against Texas what Shields did nine months earlier—that John Candy scene, Darnold calmly working the sideline in a come-from-behind win.
It reminds Maccagnan of Super Bowl LI as well. As the Patriots fell hopelessly behind, Tom Brady handled his teammates with a certain fire, injecting belief that his team was still in command. That style is more Baker Mayfield, but the confidence and respect Darnold commands on this night is like Brady’s—from how he addresses his teammates all at once to how calm he looks on the phone talking to the coaches in the booth.
Moments after the game ends, Maccagnan goes to the field and watches as Darnold is being interviewed—like his wife once did with quarterbacks—and sees how he credits the coaches for preparing the team for two-minute situations and his teammates for executing. And since USC-Texas comes on a pretty big stage, that goes into the memory bank as evidence that Darnold can handle playing in a big market.
NOVEMBER 18, 2017
Gelfand texts Maccagnan again—“So where are you today?” Maccagnan replies with another picture of Darnold, shot from the front row of the Coliseum ahead of USC-UCLA. And the GM is thinking to himself, “He’ll get drafted by some other team, and I’ll have all these cool shots of someone else’s quarterback.” Josh Rosen looks great in the rivalry game. Darnold’s team wins.
JANUARY 3, 2018
Five days after USC falls to Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl, finishing an 11-3 season, Darnold announces that he is forgoing his final two years of eligibility and declaring for the draft.
JANUARY 22, 2018
It’s Senior Bowl week. Heimerdinger meets Colts VP of player personnel Ed Dodds at the hotel bar at the Battlehouse in Mobile, Ala. Indianapolis has the No. 3 pick. The Jets have the No. 6 pick again, and a Plan A and Plan B at quarterback. Plan A: Sign Kirk Cousins, who has played in Bates’s offense and is a favorite of 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan, who happens to have strong ties to both Bates and Heimerdinger. Plan B: Trade up for one of the 2018 quarterbacks.
The conversation between Heimerdinger and Dodds gets the wheels turning on the latter. And that principle Maccagnan has of not going crazy—like, say, Washington did in 2012 to get Robert Griffin III—for anyone but a once-in-30-years guy like Luck? That colors the conversation, with the second-rounder from the Richardson trade an essential piece to pulling off the Jets’ goal of holding on to all future first-round picks.
Heimerdinger and Dodds leave Mobile with an agreement to keep talking. And thus, the Jets accomplish a goal. Based on the year-long focus on the position—Maccagnan had a scout live at just about every USC, UCLA, Oklahoma and Wyoming game—the feeling is they’re ahead of others in assessing the class. The hope is that readiness to pull the trigger before the market is fully developed could lead to a reasonable deal.
Also on the trip to Mobile is Bates, which is unusual, since the Jets don’t normally send coaches to the Senior Bowl. In Maccagnan’s view, it makes sense for the Bates—the Jets quarterbacks coach, soon to be promoted to offensive coordinator—to get eyes on and meet with Allen and Mayfield. It’s been eight months since the GM focused his scouts on the 2018 quarterbacks. This is the first time he’s talked with those prospects.
MARCH 1-3, 2018
Shields’s first words spoken to Darnold come on a weekend night at the scouting combine, as he ushers the USC quarterback he’s been digging into for two years from another team’s suite to the Jets’ room for his 15-minute interview. Shields asks Darnold how his week’s going, and whom he’s met with, before introducing him to Maccagnan, who’s also having his first conversation with a guy he’s stalked for months.
By the time the quarterbacks throw at the combine on March 3, the Jets have met with all four, and with Mayfield and Allen twice. And a sign of the seriousness with which these interviews were taken? Christopher Johnson is in the room in Indy.
MARCH 4, 2018
Heimerdinger and Dodds meet for a drink at the JW Marriott bar in Indy. Heimerdinger inquires if other teams have asked about the third pick. Both leave with the idea of continuing talks if the Jets’ pursuit of Cousins fails.
MARCH 13, 2018
Cousins’s agent, Mike McCartney, calls the Jets early evening to deliver bad news—they weren’t out of the race for his client, but Minnesota would be the first visit and there was no guarantee the quarterback would leave there without signing.
There is no waiting on Plan B for the Jets. They immediately pivot to try to secure McCown and Teddy Bridgewater, while pursuing other free agents with money that would have gone to Cousins. Maccagnan had promoted Heimerdinger to vice president 10 months earlier, so he trusted his No. 2 to lead the effort from the team facility. That frees the GM up to fly to Norman, Okla., for Mayfield’s March 14 pro day, then to Los Angeles for Rosen’s pro day on March 16.
Before any of that, Heimerdinger calls Dodds in Indianapolis: “We’re gonna need the pick.”
MARCH 13-17, 2018
The Jets check back with the Browns, who inform them it would take “an arm and a leg” for New York to move up for the first pick. The Jets don’t call the Giants. Why? The belief is because the two teams are in the same market, the Jets would have to pay a tax for the second pick. Also, keeping their trade pursuit quiet is paramount, to keep others from springing into action and setting off a bidding war. Tipping the Giants off, particularly with their connections to the quarterback-hungry Bills’ front office, would have been risky.
Indeed, this is where relationships are important. Colts GM Chris Ballard and Maccagnan have one. Dodds and Heimerdinger have one. Indy VP Rex Hogan worked for the Jets from 2015 to ’17, with ties to Maccagnan and Heimerdinger. The Jets know they can trust Indy, and they’re willing to pay a little over the point value to get the third pick, in exchange for Indy keeping the talks confidential.
On Thursday, March 15, Dodds passes Heimerdinger off to Ballard, and the deal is done early Saturday. The Jets send their slotted second-rounders for 2018 and ’19, plus the Richardson second-rounder, to Indy to move up from 6 to 3, knowing there are three QBs they’d value there. Maccagnan and Heimerdinger call Johnson for his sign-off. It’s not hard to get.
MARCH 21, 2018
Maccagnan and Heimerdinger are back in L.A., this time with Bazirgan, Bowles and Bates in tow. It’s pro day at USC. The Jets aren’t hopeful they’ll land Darnold. They’re less optimistic about it once Darnold starts throwing. As the rain picks up, Heimerdinger and Bazirgan retreat to the tent adjacent to the field. No need to get wet. As they see it, it’s over. Darnold’s going to Cleveland.
As such, the Jets have neither a workout nor an in-house visit set with Darnold. The player’s agents want to wait until after his pro day to schedule anything, and the way the tide is pushing, it might not be worth anyone’s trouble. Which, of course, doesn’t change the impression Darnold makes. “That was super impressive,” Bates says to the group.
APRIL 8, 2018
The final set of draft meetings is underway, and it’s time for scouts to present their background on players. Three stand out on the Jamal Adams level: Darnold, Mayfield and Barkley. Zach Truty, the national scout, has Mayfield. Shields, the area scout, has Darnold, Allen and Rosen. He’s written up 320 players in the 2018 draft cycle, but spent about 20-25% of his time over the last year on those three.
The quarterback the Jets believe they won’t get stands out to everyone in the room, along with the quarterback they would wind up never having a shot at.
The grading scale goes to 9. Truty’s report marks Mayfield a perfect 9—exceedingly uncommon—as a teammate, leader and worker, but has lower grades elsewhere on him. Shields has Darnold in the 8s across the board—in football character, family background, personal character, off-field, work ethic, coachability, accountability, leader by example, vocal leader, physical toughness and mental toughness.
APRIL 10, 2018
Word trickles out that the Jets have, finally, scheduled a workout with Darnold, which coincides with whispers that the Browns are smitten with Allen. The trip to New Jersey is scheduled for the final day it’s allowable for teams to bring prospects in—Darnold is set for dinner on April 17 and meetings in Florham Park on April 18. What doesn’t become public is that the Jets quietly schedule a workout too.
APRIL 15, 2018
The secret workout takes place in L.A. Heimerdinger stays behind with scouting work to do, and a strong belief that seeing Darnold work out will be like hitting on the prettiest girl in the bar—nice to look at, but probably not the most productive plan. In fact, when Maccagnan asks him about staying behind, Heimerdinger says his report is already done. “If he’s there [at 3], take him.”
So this time, it’s Maccagnan, Bazirgan and Bowles on the trip, with Bates running the workout itself. And it’s an intense one—Bates puts him through his standard 160-throw gauntlet. There’s no big moment here, which is the way it is with Darnold. He never impressed scouts in warmups as a collegian. And this isn’t the setting where he’ll really stand out in either.
But he does check the boxes. And from there, both the Jets group and Darnold fly back across the country. Darnold will meet with the Giants on the 16th and 17th, before seeing the Jets again.
APRIL 17, 2018
The Jets schedule dinner with Darnold in a private room in the basement of Jockey Hollow, an upscale restaurant in Morristown, N.J. Darnold asks Johnson about being an owner. The Jets ask him about how he eschewed the spotlight in L.A. The quarterback’s personality—natural and easygoing—comes out in a way the team hadn’t quite seen before, for Johnson and Maccagnan and Heimerdinger and Bazirgan and Bowles and Bates.
A little later Maccagnan gets up to visit the restaurant owner’s daughter, who’s having a birthday party upstairs. Ten minutes later, as he’s coming down the stairs, Heimerdinger stops him. “Man, I freaking love this kid,” the GM’s right-hand man says. “But we aren’t getting him, and that bums me out.”
Heimerdinger winds up driving Darnold back to his hotel, and asks what feedback he’s gotten on where he’s going. Darnold responds that his camp believes Cleveland is taking him, and if that doesn’t happen, he got the impression from the Giants earlier in the day that he’ll go second overall.
APRIL 18, 2018
Maccagnan is the last person Darnold sees on his visit to Florham Park, and the Jets GM tells him that he doesn’t really have any more questions, then asks him what he has planned for draft day. Darnold says he’s bringing friends to Dallas, then mentions how he’d been able to give his mom a necklace earlier in the week as part of a deal he did, and, as he keeps talking, it’s again clear to Maccagnan how genuine Darnold is.
The GM isn’t the only one who feels that way. As Darnold is leaving, the team’s director of security, Bobby Mastroddi, who’d helped interview the quarterbacks at the combine, comes down to Maccagnan’s office. “Where’s that guy going to go?” he asks “Probably 1,” Maccagnan replies. “How do we get to 1?” Mastroddi responds. “That’s the guy. I loved that guy.”
APRIL 26, 2018
Draft day. The outcome no one in Florham Park expects comes to pass. The Jets pick Darnold at 3.
MAY 6, 2018
Rookie minicamp is rookie minicamp. That said, the Jets are at peace. Darnold’s work throughout the weekend is solid, but his final day, on Sunday, sends a steady drumbeat through the building. Bates’s excitement is noticeable. While it’s ridiculously early, you can say here: So far, so good.
Accordingly, and as was the case with Bates, Johnson has some trouble containing his enthusiasm during the week. Mastroddi is the same way when he shows up at Maccagnan’s office after the minicamp wraps.
“My god, did you see him?” Mastroddi asks, grinning. Maccagnan responds, “The only reason I drafted him was because you came to my office and told me to.”
The Jets aren’t wasting time. They’re already studying how the Eagles and Rams are handling the advantage of having a star quarterback on a rookie deal, and how the Seahawks took advantage of it with Russell Wilson years ago.
That doesn’t mean the Jets are counting their chickens before they’re hatched. They know Darnold has a long road ahead of him.
But they also traveled a long road to get here. And while it took some luck to find the ending they did, Maccagnan will sure take the horseshoe he got.
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