FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — The New York Jets were disappointed and frustrated when they were rejected by Kirk Cousins. They saw him as a franchise savior, and they offered him a savior salary (three years, $90 million, fully guaranteed) even though he hadn’t won anything of significance with the Washington Redskins. They tried to justify their Cousins crush by saying it was a rare opportunity to add an established quarterback.
Cousins’ underwhelming season with the Minnesota Vikings, including a Monday-night clunker that got his offensive coordinator fired, triggers two thoughts from a Jets perspective:
Cousins would’ve been a bad fit for the rebuilding Jets, which he evidently realized because he used them as leverage and never gave them serious consideration. If he’s having problems with the Vikings, whose supporting cast is far superior to that of the Jets, imagine how he’d be playing in New York. You can’t make a definitive projection because football is an inexact science, but let’s be realistic.
He’s struggling to score points with Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs and Kyle Rudolph, so does anybody honestly think he’d be better with the Jets?
Hands? Anyone? Anyone?
Didn’t think so.
Maccagnan’s would be toast if he had an underachieving $90 million quarterback, so you might say Cousins saved Maccagnan’s job by taking less money from the Vikings. As it stands now, Maccagnan is no lock to return in 2019, but at least he can build a case for himself because of Sam Darnold, whose triumphant return to the lineup on Sunday added fuel to the Jets’ near-empty tank.
Years from now, the Jets might look back at that fourth quarter against the Buffalo Bills and call it a turning point in Darnold’s development. He demonstrated one of the most important traits for a successful quarterback — the ability to rally his team from a deficit. Using his arm and his legs, he notched his first fourth-quarter comeback win. It was a nice step.
Even though Darnold said he tries to stay in the present, he acknowledged Tuesday, “I do think about where I’m going to be in a year or two from now, and I’m really excited. I’m really excited where I can go from here. I’m really optimistic about the future and what it holds.”
For now, the key for Darnold is stacking winning performances. Next up are the Houston Texans (9-4), who can make it miserable for quarterbacks because of a front seven that features J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney. Darnold understands the deal: He must achieve consistency to take the next step as a young quarterback. He leads the league with 15 interceptions, but you get the feeling he’s not worried about making mistakes, which is the proper mindset.
“I’m definitely not going to flinch if I feel like something is there,” he said. “If I throw an interception, I’m definitely going to be pissed off about it, but [I’ll] move on. If a play is there and I see it’s there, I’m going to rip it again. I’m not going to think about it. That’s kind of the way I am, how I’ve played my whole life.”
At the start of the offseason, Darnold wasn’t Plan A for the Jets. No, their misguided Plan A was Cousins. When that fell through, Maccagnan quickly pivoted to the college draft after signing cheap insurance policies Josh McCown and Teddy Bridgewater (since traded). He made the St. Patrick’s Day trade with the Indianapolis Colts that allowed him to jump three spots in the draft. He got lucky when Darnold fell, but luck is the residue of design, as Baseball Hall of Fame executive Branch Rickey used to say.
Darnold still is somewhat of a mystery because he has played only 10 games, but his ceiling is higher than Cousins’ current level. Darnold, 21, is nine years younger and $60 million cheaper than Cousins, benefits that outweigh the risk of the unknown. It would be different if the Jets were close to contending, but they have a ways to go, and Darnold can grow up with the team.
Cousins, who went to a alleged Super Bowl contender, is having a Cousins-like year. He’s putting up impressive individual numbers (24 touchdowns, 9 interceptions), but his team is hovering around mediocrity at 6-6-1. With all that talent, the Vikings have scored 282 points, only 12 more than the Jets. It’s one of the reasons why coordinator John DeFilippo was fired Tuesday.
The Vikings have Cousins for two more years at $58 million. The Jets had pen in hand, ready to write the check. It’s a good thing they didn’t.