FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Leonard Williams watched the draft from his home in New Jersey, eager to see how the quarterback drama would play out after months of buildup. He was joined by then-New York Jets teammate Claude Pelon, who also played college ball with Williams at USC. Naturally, the two hulking defensive linemen had a particular interest in a certain passer from their alma mater.
Recalling that fateful night, Williams started out with his best Roger Goodell impersonation.
“With the third pick in the 2018 NFL draft …
“When he said Sam Darnold, we just freaked out,” Williams said this week, smiling at the memory. “We were running all around the house. I thought the Giants were going to take him, I really did.
“Thank you, Giants.”
In a bygone era, the Jets felt exactly the same way about their crosstown rival. In 1965, the New York Giants, picking first in the NFL draft, passed on a cocky but uber-talented college quarterback named Joe Namath, essentially handing him to the AFL’s Jets. More than a half-century later, Namath remains the most famous player in franchise history.
Nobody is predicting Darnold will be “Broadway Joe” — he doesn’t have the starting job (yet) or the mink coat — but the parallel is unavoidable. The Giants did in 2018 what they did in ’65. They chose a running back: Tucker Frederickson then, Saquon Barkley now. While no one questions Barkley’s credentials, the Giants might rue the decision in a couple of years, when Eli Manning is gone and they’re in quarterback purgatory.
On Friday night, the two teams meet in their annual preseason game at MetLife Stadium, an occasion that will revive the what-might-have-been scenarios.
“I wasn’t sure what was going to happen,” said Darnold, recalling the tense moments when the Giants were on the clock with the second pick. “I was just waiting for my call, for the phone to ring. I was just waiting, waiting, waiting, when that phone was going to ring. That was pretty much it. It wasn’t really, ‘Oh, you know, I think the Giants are going to pick me.’ It was just like, ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen.'”
Darnold, who took a pre-draft visit to the Giants, called them a “top-tier organization.” No question, the Giants have a richer history than the Jets, but the beauty of the Jets gig is that it affords Darnold the opportunity to blaze a new path.
He’s tracking toward the starting job, and barring a stinker Friday night, he should be in line for the opening-night assignment on Sept. 10 in Detroit. If he had landed with the Giants, he’d be caddying for Manning for at least a year.
On draft night, Jets officials didn’t freak out and run around the war room, a la Williams and Pelon, but they were absolutely stunned that Darnold was available. They expected him to be picked by the Cleveland Browns. When the Browns passed, the Jets figured the Giants would grab him or trade the pick to a quarterback-needy team.
When Barkley was announced, general manager Mike Maccagnan looked at his right-hand man, Brian Heimerdinger.
“I can’t believe that just happened,” Maccagnan told Heimerdinger. “He just fell right to us.”
Since then, the Jets have been on a Darnold high, acting as if they’re holding a winning Powerball ticket. The always measured Maccagnan said he’s “exceptionally impressed” by the rookie, calling him “unflappable.” Offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates said Darnold has “unbelievable” mental toughness and a “very powerful” ability to improvise. Bates is surprised “just how easy the game is for him.”
The coaches were blown away when Darnold showed up for training camp three days late because of a contract dispute and started running plays in practice without the benefit of offensive meetings. Basically, he had them at hello.
Quarterback Josh McCown, who broke into the league in 2002 with the Arizona Cardinals, ranked Darnold among the most impressive rookies he has ever been around. (Full disclosure: Before Darnold, McCown had played with only two first-round rookie quarterbacks: JaMarcus Russell and Johnny Manziel, both of whom were colossal busts.) Considering all positions, McCown said he’d put Darnold up there with former Cardinals wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who caught 101 passes as a rookie in 2003.
“When Anquan Boldin came on the scene, he just kind of exploded years ago,” McCown said. “[Darnold has] that same ability to operate, almost like he’s been here before, and it’s not too big for him. I think that’s the biggest thing. Some of the other rookies I’ve been around probably didn’t come in as prepared or as ready for this league as Sam, whether you’re talking about JaMarcus Russell or Johnny Manziel. Sam, he’s just ready to go.”
The Jets ranked Darnold as the best quarterback prospect in the draft, followed by Josh Rosen, Baker Mayfield and Josh Allen. They were so convinced he’d be off the board that, on his pre-draft visit, they discussed some of the most desirable neighborhoods in suburban Cleveland. He was destined to be drafted by the Browns; they were sure of it. If it had been the Giants, that would’ve been tough to swallow.
In the end, the Jets got their quarterback, just like they did in 1965. Namath could’ve ended up with the Giants — coach Allie Sherman wanted him badly — but owner Wellington Mara resisted until the last minute. He finally agreed to take Namath, but the card to pick Frederickson had already been turned in, and Mara didn’t want to disrupt league protocol by pulling it back, even though there was time left on the draft clock. He probably also wanted to avoid a bidding war with the upstart Jets.
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Meanwhile, the Jets traded up and selected Namath with the first pick in the AFL draft. They outbid the St. Louis Cardinals, who took him 12th in the NFL draft. The rest is history.
“It was a very, very exciting time,” said former center John Schmitt, who played with the Jets from 1964 to 1973. “Joe came from Alabama, and he was coached by Bear Bryant, so there was a lot of excitement. I remember it well because I was making $9,500, and Joe was getting $427,000.”
Schmitt, who lives in the New York area and remains close to the team, was impressed by Darnold in the first two preseason games. “Very sharp,” he said of the rookie. Could he be The Next One?
“I’ve always got a lot of hope,” Schmitt said. “I hope it works out. We’ll be getting together in a couple of months for the 50-year reunion of Super Bowl III, so it’s about time. It’s time to put up or shut up.”
The Darnold hype train is breaking land-speed records, but he has sparked legitimate buzz around his teammates. Wide receiver Quincy Enunwa remembers where he was on draft night. He was at an NFL watch party in Arlington, Texas, scene of the draft.
“I was excited then because I had seen a couple of his college games,” he said. “I’ve become more excited, seeing him now and seeing how good he is and how professional he is.”
No one was more pumped than Williams and Pelon.
“We both wanted Sam, obviously, partially because we’re biased as USC guys, but also because he’s great,” Williams said. “I don’t want a guy on the team just because he’s from SC. If I know he’s going to help us win, I want him on the team — and he’s been nothing but a professional since he’s been here.”