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Rebuilding the Jets through planning and patience

By Bob Lederer
Oct 15, 2016; Tucson, AZ, USA; USC Trojans quarterback Sam Darnold (14) throws a pass against the Arizona Wildcats during the first half at Arizona Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 15, 2016; Tucson, AZ, USA; USC Trojans quarterback Sam Darnold (14) throws a pass against the Arizona Wildcats during the first half at Arizona Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
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The New York Jets are currently rebuilding but through proper planning and patience, they can set themselves up nicely for a very bright future. Especially at the quarterback position in just a few years from now.

A lot of my perspectives about what to do with this New York Jets team harken back to what worked for them in the past – specifically lessons from the only time they won a Super Bowl. There are never guarantees, but after 49 years of suffering as a Jets fan, maybe repeating key elements of what worked a half-century ago are worth serious consideration.

In 1963, general manager and head coach Weeb Ewbank joined the newly-named Jets and put a “five-year plan” in place. It had worked for him with the Baltimore Colts beginning in 1953 (back-to-back NFL championships in 1958 and 1959), and it succeeded again with a 1969 Jets’ Super Bowl win. With the personnel he inherited from the New York Titans that was almost devoid of any talent, he initially focused on identifying young building blocks – guys fresh, enthusiastic and solid enough football-wise to continually improve and remain a cornerstone player a half-decade later.

Of course, that wasn’t possible at every position; Weeb stocked several key roles with talent good enough to start for a year or two – and hold its own – though they would not stand out. (Ever hear of the famed Sherman Plunkett?)

But Ewbank’s predominant interest, after having been around Otto Graham with the Cleveland Browns and then “discovering,” training and coaching up Johnny Unitas into Baltimore’s championship quarterback, was finding a future All-Pro quarterback for his new team.

Weeb knew that a superior thrower and highly intelligent quarterback would consistently elevate a winning football team to the top. For the short term, Weeb signed Dick Wood, a strong-armed, 6’5″ former Colts taxi squad member, a quarterback whose knees were so bad that it’s said his Jets’ contract spelled out he wouldn’t be paid if he hurt either of them and couldn’t play. Finding and signing the “next” Graham or Unitas took two years.

The search for a young quarterback in 1963 was somewhat easier than today, and yet many pro football transaction basics are the same. Then and now, you had to be a bad football team. As an AFL team in the 1960’s, the Jets, more or less, had the chance to handpick any college quarterback they wanted. It would take a trade involving a high draft pick, followed by a substantial contract offer. Ewbank knew the importance of being patient, and it took two years of bad football.

In the fall of 1963 – a year before Joe Namath would graduate –Ewbank told principal owner Sonny Werblin – as well as the New York press – about Joe, a junior quarterback at Alabama who, he asserted, was far more impressive than any 1963 hotshot draft choice.

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For instance, Miami Hurricane quarterback George Mira‘s powerful arm had helped him set numerous school passing marks. Werblin was so anxious to get a quarterback and make a PR hullabaloo about it that he would have gladly opened his wallet for Mira, but Weeb dissuaded him. The 6’0″ Mira was the talk of college football, but he was deemed too short by Ewbank, who said he’d seen terrific, but slight NFL quarterbacks stumble in key situations because they couldn’t see everything downfield.

Simply selecting Namath in the AFL draft wasn’t cheap. The Jets traded their rights to touted Tulsa All-America quarterback Jerry Rhome and a first-round pick they had acquired from Denver to get the first pick in the AFL draft from Houston. It was a heavy price to pay, but even more dangerous because Namath had suffered a severe, not-fully-diagnosed knee injury during his senior year. In fact, the Jets didn’t find out how bad it was until the afternoon after their press conference to announce his signing.

That was then, and this is now. At this point in time, there are specks of overall talent on this team, notably at wide receiver. A special quarterback talent could help them blossom. You don’t have to look much past the veterans that the Jets have released in 2017 and the nondescript free agents they have signed this offseason to recognize we’re all in for a tough 2017-2018 season. But that’s okay if the Jets are willing and planning to be at the bottom of the heap in the NFL to earn a first choice in the draft that nets them the kind of quarterback they have not had since Namath.

The Jets had two earlier chances to accomplish that. They passed on Dan Marino in 1979 and lost out on Peyton Manning in 1997 when he decided to stay at Tennessee for his senior season.If it’s time for the “next Namath” and the Jets find themselves in a position to stake their claim, who could their target be?

All the buzz says, Sam Darnold.

College Football 24/7 Editor Dan Parr blogged March 1 that “the player generating the most buzz with NFL evaluators in Indianapolis… for the NFL’s Scouting Combine” was “USC’s Sam Darnold.” (Darnold wasn’t even there!) On Twitter, Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) noted a text from an NFL executive that said “biggest talk at Combine, and it’s not close” was about Darnold.

Next: Jets would be wise to continue development of Calvin Pryor

He’ll be a sophomore this fall and eligible to enter the 2018 NFL Draft. The Jets need to somehow, someway, get that quarterback and begin the build around him. If Darnold is the real thing, it’ll be worth a demoralizing Jets season.

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