It could simply be that Sam Darnold will not be as good as Josh Allen. But we may also be witnessing further proof of an inalienable truth that if the franchise that begs you to be its long-lost franchise quarterback wraps you in a cocoon of competence, you will have a better chance to succeed than if that franchise leaves you on your own and seeing ghosts.
Allen (67.1 completion percentage, 16 touchdowns, four interceptions, 37-for-143 rushing with three TDs) has taken a Lambeau Leap in his third season while his pal Darnold (59.4 completion percentage, three TDs, four INTs, 14-117-1 rushing) has landed in quicksand, and an examination of how the Bills (4-2) and the Worst Team in Football (0-6) have supported and developed each reveals why.
Jets fans can only pray Trevor Lawrence does not view this as a cautionary tale, should he be the pot of gold at the end of an rainbow following an 0-16 storm.
Darnold has been set back to a degree by injuries and mono, but there are more significant reasons why his growth has been stunted.
The won-lost record:
Allen: 19-14; Darnold: 11-19.
Bills owner Terry Pegula got head coach right with Sean McDermott in 2017; Jets owner Christopher Johnson got Adam Gase wrong in 2019.
Pegula, following the dysfunctional firing of former general manager Doug Whaley after the 2017 NFL draft (in other words, he was Maccagnan’d), got it right when he hired GM Brandon Beane.
Johnson got it right when he hired GM Joe Douglas, even though it came after former GM Mike Maccagnan had drafted Darnold in 2018 then signed Le’Veon Bell in 2019 free agency, much to Gase’s chagrin.
But here’s a critical difference:
McDermott was already in place and had already broken the Bills’ 17-year playoff drought the season before Beane traded up for Allen.
Darnold played his rookie season under Todd Bowles and overmatched offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates before Johnson summoned Gase (and OC Dowell Loggains) in an attempt to get his franchise quarterback to take flight.
McDermott fired OC Rick Dennison prior to the 2018 draft so Allen could be nurtured as a rookie by highly regarded coordinator Brian Daboll.
(Murphy’s Law — if anything can go wrong, it will — was only getting started for Darnold and the Jets).
At the important center position, Beane made Mitch Morse (four years, $44.5 million) the highest-paid center in the NFL in 2019 free agency. Spencer Long started 13 games for the Jets in 2018. Jonatthon Harrison started 10 games in 2019. Beane drafted offensive lineman Cody Ford, currently the right guard, in the second round in 2019 and signed starting right tackle Daryl Williams, a player Beane and McDermott knew from their days at Carolina, in 2020 free agency. Maccagnan drafted tackle Chuma Edoga, a backup, in the third round in 2019 and, of course, left tackle Mekhi Becton with the 11th pick of the 2020 draft.
Allen’s running back as a rookie was a faded LeSean McCoy. Beane replaced him with ageless Frank Gore (722 rushing yards, 12-124-1 receiving), 2019 third-round pick Devin Singletary (152-775-2 TDs rushing and 29-194-2 TDs receiving as a rookie, 71-270 1 TD rushing and 18-135 receiving this season) and 2020 third-round pick Zack Moss (22-58 rushing, 3-16-1 receiving in three games off the bench).
Darnold’s main running back as a rookie was Isaiah Crowell (685 yards rushing, six TDs, 21 receptions). Then Bell arrived and was a rusty square peg in a round hole (245-789-3 rushing, 66-461-1 receiving) and had 19-for-74 rushing and 3-for-39 receiving in two games this season before he was released and joined the Chiefs.
The Jets are hopeful Darnold can return from his shoulder injury against the Bills with Gore and La’Michal Perine, a fourth-round pick, behind him.
Allen’s starting receivers as a rookie were Kelvin Benjamin and Zay Jones. Not good enough.
Darnold’s top receivers as a rookie were the young Robby Anderson, Quincy Enunwa and Jermaine Kearse. Not good enough.
Enunwa had showed enough promise for Maccagnan to give him a four-year, $36 million deal and say: “Quincy is a key part of our foundation, and we are thrilled that this contract will keep him here for years to come.” One game to come was more like it: Enunwa suffered a career-ending neck injury in the 2019 opener — in which he caught one pass for minus-4 yards.
Though the Jets signed WR Jamison Crowder in 2019 free agency, the Bills added WRs John Brown, a deep threat, and Cole Beasley. Beane labeled Beasley, “a quarterback’s best friend.” Maccagnan had signed WR Terrelle Pryor (14-235-2) and KR/WR Andre Roberts (10-79-1) in 2018 (before releasing Pryor in October with a groin injury), and signed WR Josh Bellamy (2-20) in 2019. Roberts is now almost exclusively a returner for the Bills.
But the single biggest difference-making move, which helped Allen and signified the Bills’ win-now aggressiveness, came this offseason when Beane traded the 22nd-overall draft pick, fifth- and sixth-rounders and a 2021 fourth-rounder for WR Stefon Diggs (26-403-2 this season) and a 2020 seventh-rounder.
Douglas let Anderson bolt to the Panthers (28-377-1 this season) and signed Breshad Perriman for $2 million less to replace him and drafted WR Denzel Mims in the second round. Perriman (9-91) returned last week from an ankle sprain and Mims (hamstrings) will make his NFL debut on Sunday.
So here are the career numbers for Allen’s top receivers:
Brown 301 receptions, 30 TDs; Beasley 404 receptions, 30 TDs; Diggs: 391 receptions, 32 TDs.
And here are the career numbers for Darnold’s top receivers:
Crowder: 313 receptions, 21 TDs; Perriman: 100 receptions, 11 TDs; Mims: zero and zero.
There’s no need to talk about the respective defenses.
Douglas had promised Darnold’s parents he would protect their boy, and drafting Becton helps. But his overhauling of the offensive line isn’t finished.
The sad reality for Darnold is there is no way of knowing right now whether he will see its finish.
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