New York Jets
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Quarterback 'what-ifs' on center stage for Jets
Thursday's Jets-Browns game in Cleveland easily could've been a quarterback matchup of Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold with Mayfield in green and white and Darnold in brown and orange.
Jets fans may shudder at that thought (they gave Darnold a standing ovation on Sunday before he even took a snap), but it very easily could've happened. Darnold was the consensus No. 1 pick for a good chunk of time leading up to the draft before the Browns became enamored with Mayfield.
The draft always provides some great "what if" scenarios, but this year's will be particularly interesting, say, five years from now, with four quarterbacks in the top 10 (Mayfield, No. 1; Darnold, No. 3; Josh Allen, No. 7 to the Bills; Josh Rosen, No. 10 to the Cardinals), plus Lamar Jackson going to the Ravens 32nd and the Giants foregoing a potential franchise quarterback to take Saquon Barkley second.
Mayfield still hasn't played an NFL snap as he holds the clipboard for veteran Tyrod Taylor, but Darnold has already thrown for 532 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions in going 1-1 for the Jets.
It's been such a whirlwind for the 21-year-old that he hasn't had time to reflect on the possibilities.
"I thought I could be there (in Cleveland) or several other teams," Darnold said after Monday's practice. "I honestly haven't even thought about it since I got drafted by the Jets. With (Cleveland) having the (No.) 1 pick, I guess there was a good chance I might have gone there, so I was thinking about it before. But ever since the draft, I haven't even thought about it."
It's not as if the Jets have been some sort of dynasty the last few years, but they actually seem like a stable franchise compared to the Browns, who hit rock bottom as a franchise last season, recording only the second winless 16-game season in NFL history.
Since they were reincarnated in 1999, Cleveland has one playoff appearance, two winning seasons, nine head coaches and their recent stretch of ineptitude has reached epic proportions. The Browns are on a 1-35-1 stretch, but I guess you could say things are looking up because the tie came Week 1 against the Steelers?
So forgive Cleveland head coach Hue Jackson if he's not worried about Darnold right now. He's got his own problems to worry about.
"I don't think at this point that really matters," Jackson said Tuesday on a conference call with the New York media about the draft order. "More than anything, what Sam is doing is he's proving he can play in this league as a starter right now for the New York Jets. We have a very young, talented player that we feel really good about who, at some point in time, will get an opportunity to showcase his talent and ability."
Darnold's time is now, but is he ready? It's a fair question given his propensity to turn the ball over. He shows flashes of brilliance, but in 29 games between USC and the Jets, Darnold has turned the ball over an astounding 39 times.
That could be especially troublesome against the Browns. Even though they haven't won a game yet, second-year defensive coordinator Gregg Williams' defense has already forced a league-high eight turnovers.
"It's not like he's going to see anything that he hasn't seen," head coach Todd Bowles said. "They disguise well, he just has to play his game, and the other 10 guys on offense have to do their job."
One thing Darnold hasn't seen and won't see through his growing pains is the bench. Mayfield is learning from the sidelines, and it might behoove him in the long run.
Another great "what if" of the 2018 draft.
SERIES HISTORY: 25th regular-season meeting. Series tied, 12-12. The Jets have won the last five meetings between the teams, including each of the last two years in Cleveland. New York won its only road game of 2017 there last season, a 17-14 decision when Jermaine Kearse scored the eventual game-winning touchdown on a 24-yard reception from Josh McCown in the fourth quarter, as the Jets got to 3-2 on the season. Current Jets McCown, Isaiah Crowell and Terrelle Pryor were on the Browns side for the Jets' win in Cleveland in 2016, when Matt Forte rushed for two touchdowns and Ryan Fitzpatrick threw another to Quincy Enunwa in a 31-28 win.
The teams met in a memorable divisional round playoff in the 1986 season, a 23-20 Browns win in double overtime. Known as the "Marathon by the Lake," the Jets led 20-10 with 4:14 left in regulation after Freeman McNeil's 25-yard touchdown run. But Kevin Mack scored on a 1-yard TD run to make it 20-17 with 1:57 left, and Mark Moseley tied it on a 22-yard field goal with 11 seconds remaining in regulation. Moseley, a 38-year-old former league MVP who the Browns lured out of retirement only two months earlier, missed three of his six field goals on the day, including a 23-yarder on first down in overtime, but he kicked the game-winner from 27 yards out to end the game after more than four hours.
The teams' most notable regular-season encounter was likely their first-ever game, Sept. 21, 1970, which was also the first installment of ABC's "Monday Night Football." The Browns won the game, 31-21, at Cleveland Municipal Stadium, intercepting Joe Namath three times and getting a 94-yard kickoff return touchdown from Homer Jones.