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The Jets’ Long Road to Sam Darnold

The pursuit was years in the making—from the moment Sam Darnold first turned up on the Jets’ radar as a USC scout team quarterback in 2015 to the fateful day in April 2018 when the prize prospect fell into the laps of Mike Maccagnan and crew. Here’s everything that went into the scouting and drafting of a franchise QB

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.

Christopher Johnson, Todd Bowles and Mike Maccagnan are all smiles on draft night.

Christopher Johnson, Todd Bowles and Mike Maccagnan are all smiles on draft night.

PROLOGUE

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.

FALL 2015

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.

AUGUST 2016

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.