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Tuesday, October 26, 2021

How New York Jets Front Office And Coach Robert Saleh Should Approach QB Decisions Involving Sam Darnold And Deshaun Watson

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Kyle Shanahan became noted for both his innovative offensive system and play-calling, first as the coordinator with the Atlanta Falcons and then as the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. 

Incoming New York Jets head coach Robert Saleh wants his new offensive coordinator, Mike LaFleur, to bring in those same concepts to their new team. But it won’t be easy, considering LaFleur, the younger brother of Green Bay coach Matt LaFleur, hasn’t been a play-caller since 2013 with FCS Davidson College. 

Still, Saleh said in his introductory Zoom news conference that “nobody in the world knows (the Shanahan offense) better” than LaFleur, the former passing game coordinator for San Francisco, which is why Saleh is bringing him across the country. 

So what does that mean for the Jets, and also, for their quarterbacks room? Saleh was wisely diplomatic during his Jets’ rollout, deflecting questions on the team’s ultimate plans for incumbent quarterback Sam Darnold, who still is under contract for this season. The Jets also must decide by early May whether to pick up his fifth-year option, or let him play out this year under the final season of his rookie deal and push the decision on his future until after the season. 

Although Saleh praised Darnold, he noticeably stopped short of naming him the team’s starter entering the spring. Smart move. That’s because the specter of a possible trade continues to loom over the proceedings, and there is no reason for Saleh to speak negatively of Darnold if the Jets want to get any value for him.

Yes, the 49ers’ system is considered “quarterback-friendly,” in that it uses pre-snap motion and bunch formations for wide receivers to confuse defenses and create opportunities for receivers to get open. But it’s worth noting that San Francisco quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who missed 10 games last season because of two separate high-ankle sprains, has been the subject of trade rumors for months. 

If Shanahan and his offensive staff finally have grown impatient with Garoppolo, a game manager at best, should Saleh and LaFleur be satisfied with Darnold, who seems thus far to be cut from the same mold? 

As I’ve made clear many times in this space, Darnold’s ceiling seems to be lower than anticipated, and although he is a solid citizen who has never rocked the boat and is well-deserving of the media “good guy” award recently bestowed upon him by writers who regularly cover the team, it is time to move on. 

The defensive-minded Saleh might believe he and new defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich can win games 19-13, 17-14, etc. with LaFleur scheming up just enough yards and points out of the Shanahan system. But in the modern NFL, which favors offenses with most of its rules, it’s an antiquated way to try to win. Note that although 49ers held a 20-10 lead over Kansas City in the third quarter of last year’s Super Bowl, Garoppolo wasn’t able to build on that advantage, and the elite Patrick Mahomes was able to bring his team back to victory.  

Of course, an obvious upgrade seems to be available, especially now that the Miami Herald’s Armando Salguero has reported that disgruntled Houston star quarterback Deshaun Watson’s top two preferred destinations are the Jets and Miami, in that order. 

Yes, trading for Watson would be a much better option than sticking with Darnold. But it comes with risk. As terrific a quarterback as Watson is—he has 104 touchdown passes and 36 interceptions in his career—the Texans aren’t going to give him away despite his unhappiness. Most reports have pegged the asking price at three first-round picks, and although the Jets do have an extra one both this year and next courtesy of Seattle because of the Jamal Adams deal, the fact remains New York is not a win-now team. 

The Jets still have many holes to fill to build a team around Watson that can win in the post-season. (Houston is 1-2 in playoff games with Watson, for what it’s worth.) Acquiring his services could severely damage the Jets’ ability to do that. Thus, it is up to general manager Joe Douglas and Saleh to decide whether they can, indeed, still build the team they want with Watson and without that draft capital, or if those draft picks are necessary to undo the roster damage wrought by previous regimes. 

They also need to ignore the potential noise coming from above, as I noted previously. Returning owner Woody Johnson is a fan of the splashy move and should not factor into this decision, which must be made by the football experts.

The safer move would be to select a young quarterback in the draft and build for the future. But if they want to go for it, and trade for Watson, that is their decision. But it will put a lot of pressure on Douglas to make wise moves elsewhere to make up for the lost first-round picks.

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