Can Zach Wilson avoid the New York Jets’ quarterback curse?

BYU QB Zach Wilson looks like a can’t-miss quarterback prospect. But the New York Jets have a long NFL history of missing on can’t-miss prospects. After all, Wilson is the likely replacement for Sam Darnold, who went from the face of the franchise to an unwanted castoff after just three seasons and was traded to the Carolina Panthers earlier in the week.

From choosing Ken O’Brien over Dan Marino to trading up to make Mark Sanchez the “Sanchise,” Jets quarterback history is full of regrettable first-round draft decisions. But who’s to blame — the quarterbacks or the Jets themselves? And what can the Jets learn from their pitfalls of the past so they don’t fall right back into them? Assuming the Jets make Wilson the second overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, let’s take a deep historical dive to see if we can save Wilson from impending doom and break the Jets’ quarterback curse.

Be sure to join PFN Chief NFL Analyst Trey Wingo and Chief Draft Analyst Tony Pauline every week on Draft Insiders as they break down all you need to know heading into the 2021 NFL Draft. Subscribe to our PFN YouTube channel and hit the notifications icon so you can tune in live every Wednesday at 9 PM ET.

Trey Wingo and Tony Pauline discuss Zach Wilson and more

On the April 7 episode of PFN Draft Insiders, Chief NFL Analyst Trey Wingo and Chief Draft Analyst and NFL Insider Tony Pauline broke down the Sam Darnold trade, talked about the implications of drafting Wilson, and outlined the Jets’ tragic quarterback history. Here’s an excerpt:

TREY WINGO: This will be the 6th time in Jets history [since the merger] that they’ve taken a quarterback in the first round, and the first five are very much a mixed bag.

There was Richard Todd, who I think we would all say was a serviceable quarterback. Ken O’Brien was part of that Class of ’83. I always feel bad for Ken O’Brien because he was drafted ahead of Dan Marino. That’s not on him, that’s on the team. I always thought Ken O’Brien was a good-to-very-good quarterback. Then there was Chad Pennington, who had really good years until he had surgery on his shoulder. And then there was Mark Sanchez and Sam Darnold.

So I think there was one very solid pick in O’Brien and two decent picks in Pennington and Sanchez, who led them to a bunch of playoff wins as a complementary part of that defense. But they’ve yet to find that home run.

TONY PAULINE: Is it the player? Or is it the coaching?

Ken O’Brien had Joe Walton as his coach, a guy who was supposed to be an offensive genius. Yet the Jets never implemented the shotgun offense until 10 years after the rest of the league was using it. Sanchez had Brian Schottenheimer, who was only able to get him to a certain point. Then you look at Sam Darnold with Adam Gase.

It’s not always just the player. It’s the ability to develop that player … For the Jets, it’s been an eyesore at quarterback at times. But if you look at recent years, the Jets haven’t developed any of their draft picks.

Now, let’s take a closer look at some of those doomed first-round picks of the past.

Sam Darnold: The Zach Wilson of 2018

Darnold threw a pick-six on Monday Night Football against the Detroit Lions in his very first NFL pass attempt. You would think that there was nowhere for Darnold to go from there but up. And at first, that appeared to be true. Darnold rallied to lead a blowout of the Lions in that game, then appeared to be finding his stroke when he threw 5 touchdown passes in back-to-back wins over the Denver Broncos and Indianapolis Colts later in October of his rookie season.

You know what happened next — foot injury, Adam Gase, mono, “seeing ghosts,” Adam Gase, shoulder injury exacerbated by Adam Gase leaving him in the game, bad habits, bad supporting cast, Adam Gase.

The Panthers’ brain trust of head coach Matt Rhule and offensive coordinator Joe Brady thinks they can de-Gasify Darnold the way the Tennessee Titans repaired Ryan Tannehill. Deprogramming the Winter Soldier was probably easier.

Lessons learned from Sam Darnold: A bad coach can torpedo any quarterback’s career. A terrible coach like Gase can annihilate a franchise.

The new Robert Saleh/Mike LaFleur regime looks great on paper. They need the time and resources to both develop Wilson and make sure he stays healthy and has people to throw to.

Mark Sanchez: The Zach Wilson of 2009

The Jets traded up from the 17th to the 5th overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft to select Sanchez, who was coming off a 34-touchdown season at USC. Sanchez won a starting job as a rookie and game-managed his way to lots of early-career wins with the help of cornerback Darrelle Revis and Rex Ryan’s stellar defense. He led the Jets to playoff wins over Peyton Manning’s Colts and Tom Brady’s New England Patriots in his second season.

Sanchez also appeared to be showing steady improvement — his completion rate, touchdown total, and yards per game increased in each of his first three seasons. But his numbers were still below average, despite a receiving corps headlined by Santonio Holmes and Plaxico Burress. The Jets fell from contention and finger-pointing ensued, with players questioning offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and privately ripping Sanchez.

In true Jets fashion, the Jets responded to the fissures within the offense by simultaneously signing Sanchez to a three-year contract extension and trading for Tim Tebow. Then, they invited the entire national media to their training camp to live-stream the quarterback controversy. (I was there. It was bonkers.)

A few months later, it was “butt fumble” time.

Lessons learned from Mark Sanchez: The Jets fooled themselves for three seasons. They weren’t winning with Sanchez, they were winning despite Sanchez. Ryan allowed Schottenheimer to build an arch-conservative offense (it did not take much arm-twisting) that hid Sanchez’s weaknesses but nerfed stars like Holmes. As a result, the Sanchez Jets were like the Mitch Trubisky Chicago Bears — just good enough to keep things close before falling short in a playoff heartbreaker.

Saleh is a defense-oriented coach, and defense-oriented coaches often get carried away with safe offenses and quarterbacks who throw three-yard passes on 3rd and 12. Saleh and LaFleur must let Wilson open things up and be as good as he can possibly be.

And if Wilson cannot handle it, the Jets must be as bold with him as they just were with Darnold.

Chad Pennington: The Zach Wilson of 2000

Pennington is either so overrated he’s underrated or so underrated he’s overrated by Jets fans who remember his best moments fondly but have forgotten the details.

The 18th overall pick in the 2000 NFL Draft, Pennington needed two-and-a-quarter seasons to win a starting job from Vinny Testaverde. He led the NFL in passer rating and took the Jets to the playoffs in his first year as a starter in 2004. He then embarked on a hopscotch career in which he was very good in even-numbered years and either bad or unavailable in odd-numbered years.

Pennington won the Comeback Player of the Year award in 2006 after major shoulder surgery in 2005 and in 2008 (for the Miami Dolphins) after a bad season exacerbated by a high ankle sprain in 2007. Even in his best seasons, Pennington was more of a game manager in conservative offenses than a star. But he’s still the greatest quarterback that most Jets fans can remember, which is a tiny bit sad.

Lessons learned from Chad Pennington: Jets head coach Herm Edwards kept sending Pennington onto the field in 2005 even though it was clear that his injured shoulder was deteriorating. Eric Mangini also played Pennington through his ankle injury for half of 2007. Gase did something similar to Darnold when he was desperate for a win early in the 2020 season.

Jets coaches shouldn’t have to be told this, but it’s not a great idea to send an obviously injured quarterback into the huddle.

Also, the Jets need Wilson to be better than even-year Pennington. The organization seems to set a low bar for itself at quarterback. True to form, their quarterbacks almost clear it. It’s past time to aim higher.

Ken O’Brien: The Zach Wilson of 1983

The Jets had better hope that Wilson is not the Ken O’Brien of 2020. If so, it means that Justin Fields, Trey Lance , or Mac Jones turned into Dan Marino!

The Jets selected O’Brien with the 24th overall pick in the legendary 1983 NFL Draft. The Dolphins selected Marino 27th overall. Marino was a college superstar who tumbled down draft boards due to a senior-year slump and some unfounded drug rumors. Ken O’Brien was a standout at Cal-Davis who broke his leg in the D-II Championship.

In other words, the stage was set for a vintage Jets catastrophe.

Ultimately, O’Brien had a fine career, leading the Jets to the playoffs three times. But as Tony Pauline mentioned earlier in this article, head coach Joe Walton and offensive coordinator Rich Kotite ran an offense that was a decade out of date. Furthermore, O’Brien was overshadowed in his own division by Marino and Jim Kelly.

O’Brien turned out to be both one of the Jets’ best and worst draft picks in history. Only the Jets can pull off such an unlikely feat.

Lessons learned from Ken O’Brien: For all his talents, Wilson is essentially a one-year wonder who vaulted toward the top of the draft class when Brigham Young was forced to fill its schedule with mid-major also-rans. Fields, like Marino, is a major-program household name who appears to be dropping largely due to scouting analysis-paralysis and rumor-mongering.

The Jets had better prove that they’re absolutely right with Wilson. Otherwise, history will point at them and laugh. Again.

Richard Todd: The Zach Wilson of 1976

Todd was a dual-threat quarterback for Alabama. The Jets drafted him sixth overall in 1976 to essentially do what he did for the Crimson Tide (replace Joe Namath).

That may have been a tad too much pressure to put on any rookie quarterback.

Todd battled interceptions and injuries early in his career. Jets fans booed him relentlessly. Todd even shoved a New York Post reporter in the locker room after a game. We’ve all had that urge, but doing so is not good for anyone’s career.

After five miserable seasons, Todd finally had a solid year in 1981. He was even better in strike-shortened 1982, leading the Jets to the AFC Championship Game. Unfortunately, he threw 5 interceptions on a rainy afternoon in Miami against the Dolphins. It was time for the Jets to move on and draft Ken O’Brien.

Lessons learned from Richard Todd: “I wish I was more patient with the media,” Todd once said. “But being a quarterback in New York isn’t easy.”

The New York tabloids love to anoint saviors on draft day and then offer them up for execution by December. Something as benign as Darnold’s “seeing ghosts” remarks can bounce through the New York talk-radio echo chamber and get amplified on national television talk shows. And turning Sanchez vs. Tebow into reality television in 2012 was just unconscionably stupid.

Early expectations will be Wilson’s enemy. Saleh and the entire Jets organization must do their best to temper them.

Other Wilson lessons of the past

Here’s a quick rundown of some of the other quarterbacks the Jets selected with early draft picks:

Christian Hackenberg (51st overall, 2016). Hackenberg looked like a future Heisman candidate as a true freshman at Penn State but regressed badly for two straight years afterward, despite sharing an offense with Saquon Barkley and Chris Godwin.

Lesson learned: Never let former Jets general manager Mike Maccagnan within 200 feet of a draft war room.

Geno Smith (39th overall, 2013). A dual-threat standout at West Virginia, Smith struggled with sacks, turnovers, expectations, and a high-profile clash with a teammate before settling into a long career as a backup.

Lesson learned: Sometimes the whispers from the NFL’s old guard about a quarterback not having the intangibles to cut it in the NFL really are true.

Kellen Clemens (49th overall, 2006). Clemens was a three-year starter for Oregon with a reputation as an efficient decision-maker. He spent his Jets career never quite winning starting jobs from Chad Pennington and Mark Sanchez, with a brief stint as Brett Favre’s backup wedged in between.

Lesson learned: Don’t draft a quarterback without a plan to use him. And don’t settle for the Kyle Trask type with the pretty stats and the nice personality.

Browning Nagle (34th overall, 1991). Legend has it that the Jets planned to draft Brett Favre (a top talent who slid because of his party-guy reputation) with the 34th selection in 1991. The Falcons selected Favre 33rd overall, and the Jets settled for Nagle, who threw 17 interceptions in his lone season as an NFL starter.

Lesson learned: The Jets are born into trouble as surely as sparks fly upward.

Final thoughts on Wilson and the Jets’ QB curse

Joe Namath was special. He was uniquely suited to handle the rigors of being a New York quarterback and cultural icon. He was also unbelievably talented — a Patrick Mahomes-like figure in the mid-1960s who helped change the way pro football is both played and marketed.

Namath also had terrible knees and was more or less toast after five great seasons. He should not loom like a specter over the Jets five decades later. Yet, he does because the Jets keep exposing their quarterbacks to too many hits, too much media hoopla, and too many coaches with strange agendas.

Featured | NFL Draft Prospects 2021: Pauline’s updated big board, player rankings

Wilson doesn’t have to be prime Namath. But he must be better than any of the quarterbacks on this list at avoiding injuries, shaking off the pressure, and rebounding from bad performances. For their part, the Jets, for the first time since the 1960s, must truly nurture their young quarterback with not just weapons and an offensive line but stable coaches with modern schemes and an environment that doesn’t make bad situations worse.

It’s a taller order for the Jets than for Wilson. But even the worst organization has to get things right once every half-century.

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