Jets’ tortured 45-year quest for franchise QB turns to Zach Wilson

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“God knows I need players at other positions, but if a super quarterback is available, I have to take him … and Todd is super. You just don’t find great quarterbacks every day.” — Jets coach Lou Holtz on April 8, 1976, at the Hotel Roosevelt in Manhattan after the Jets selected Alabama quarterback Richard Todd with the No. 6 pick overall.

Joe Namath knew the call was coming, so he did a little research. A reporter was calling to talk about the Jets quarterback history since he departed following the 1976 season.

“Knowing I was going to talk to you,” Namath said Monday, “I did do some research on the Jets site about the past quarterbacks and who they were … and wow, you have a lot of guys there.”

Namath took his final snap for the Jets on Dec. 12, 1976, in a 42-3 loss to the Bengals at Shea Stadium. Richard Todd, the quarterback who made Lou Holtz gush months earlier, relieved Namath that day and would go on to be the starter the following year.

It started a quest to find the successor to Namath as the Jets franchise quarterback, a quest that will continue Thursday night when the Jets are expected to select BYU quarterback Zach Wilson with the No. 2-overall pick. If Wilson starts Week 1 of the 2021 season, he will be the 35th different starting quarterback since Namath last laced up his white shoes for the Jets.

When it comes to quarterbacks, the franchise has taken more swings and misses than a batter facing Jacob deGrom. There have been first-round picks, second-round picks, late-round picks, free-agent signings, journeymen who were only around for a year or two and everything in between.

Some have had modest success. Others were total disasters.

Namath has been asked about them all. One of the golden rules of covering the Jets is that you get Namath’s opinion about the quarterback. Thus, he has been asked about them all at one point or another. He’s not ready to give a thought on Wilson, who he has not seen much of, but he has an opinion about why things maybe have not worked out in the 45 years since he walked off the Shea Stadium field.

“Lady Luck plays a major role,” Namath said. “Lady Luck comes in a couple of forms. She’s bad sometimes. You and I have dealt with various members of the opposite sex and they’re different. Lady Luck’s different. You’ve got to earn your own luck a whole lot of the time.”

Luck has been as elusive for the Jets as a second Lombardi Trophy.

Here is a look at the tortured history of the Jets’ quarterbacks.

First-Round Saviors

The reporters were waiting for Namath the day Todd was chosen in 1976. It was clear the Jets were taking his successor, even if Namath still wanted to keep playing. Namath knew Todd, a fellow Alabama quarterback.

“I think it’s great,” Namath told the reporters in 1976. “I’ve talked to the Jets about him for the last couple of years. He has great ability and a strong arm. He can throw the sprintout. I’ve worked out with him for the last two years … mainly on his footwork. He has to work some on his fundamentals, but he can be a great one.”

Todd was the first of five quarterbacks the Jets have chosen in the first round since Namath left town. He ended up not being a great one, and Ken O’Brien came in 1983. Chad Pennington was picked 18th overall in 2000. The team traded up in 2009 to select Mark Sanchez No. 5 overall and then the team chose Sam Darnold with the third pick in 2018.

Each of the first-rounders had varying degrees of success. Todd took the Jets from the misery of the 1970s to two playoff berths in the 1980s. But his interceptions overshadowed any positives, particularly the five he threw in the 1982 AFC Championship game loss to the Dolphins in muddy Miami.

O’Brien did not arrive with the hype of the other first-rounders. He was drafted out of Division II Cal-Davis and many Jets fans had no idea who he was before commissioner Pete Rozelle called his name. Many lamented that the Jets took O’Brien with the No. 24 pick when Pittsburgh star Dan Marino was still on the board. The hated Dolphins would take him three picks later to make things worse.

O’Brien had a good career that included 24,386 passing yards and 124 passing touchdowns for the Jets, numbers that trail just Namath in franchise history. His 1985 season is one of the best by a Jets quarterback and he had some memorable games, but he could not escape the shadow of that famed 1983 draft class that featured three quarterbacks, including Marino, who would go to the Hall of Fame.

Pennington may have shown more promise than any of the first-rounders after taking over in 2002. But shoulder injuries in 2004 and 2005 derailed his career with the Jets. As with O’Brien and Marino, Jets fans are left to wonder, “What if?” since Tom Brady was drafted 181 picks after Pennington.

Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum made a bold move for Sanchez out of USC in 2009. It could not have started better. The Jets went to AFC Championship games in each of his first two seasons, with Sanchez winning four road playoff games. In Year 2, those playoff wins came over Peyton Manning and Brady. Sanchez was a complementary piece of those playoffs teams, and when the Jets tried to have Sanchez carry the team after that it backfired on them and Sanchez crumbled under pressure and a deteriorating roster. The Tim Tebow trade in 2012 and a shoulder injury in 2013 finished Sanchez off with the Jets.

The Jets went back to USC in 2018, when they selected Darnold No. 3 overall. There were moments of brilliance, but Darnold never put things together. A poor roster around him and a bad scheme fit with coach Adam Gase left Jets fans wondering whether Darnold will realize his potential with another team. The Jets traded him to Carolina this month.

Second-Round Shots

The Jets’ hopes have not just been pinned on the first-round studs through the years. Browning Nagle, Kellen Clemens, Geno Smith and Christian Hackenberg were all taken in the second round by the Jets.

None had much success. Nagle and Smith each had memorable games in Atlanta, but neither lasted very long with the team. Smith will be remembered more for taking a punch from teammate IK Enemkpali in the locker room than what he did on the field. Clemens made just nine starts for the Jets, but that is nine more than Hackenberg made. The 51st pick in 2016 amazingly never took a snap with the Jets.

Hired Guns

The Jets have not always relied on the draft to find a quarterback. The Jets traded for Boomer Esiason in 1993, hoping the Long Island native could turn things around. Esiason lasted three years and played for three coaches, failing to make the playoffs.

The Jets replaced Esiason with Neil O’Donnell, signing him a five-year, $25 million contract in 1996 after O’Donnell had guided the Steelers to the Super Bowl the year before. The signing was a disaster. O’Donnell went 0-6 in his first season with the Jets and then fell out of favor with new coach Bill Parcells in 1997. He once injured his calf muscle in pregame warm-ups when he slipped on a rain-soaked Jets logo on the turf.

The Jets went for it all in 2008, swinging a deal with the Packers for three-time MVP Brett Favre. The Jets had coveted him in the 1991 draft, but lost him when Atlanta took him right before them in the second round. That led to Nagle.

The Favre experiment turned the Jets into rock stars and it worked … for a little while. The Jets started out 8-3 with Favre and looked on their way to the postseason. A torn biceps tendon in his right arm doomed his one season here, though. The Jets went 1-4 down the stretch and missed the playoffs after a loss to Pennington and the Dolphins. Favre retired after the season, but then reconsidered and joined the Vikings.

The Journeymen

A few players that were not huge draft picks or major signings deserve a mention.

Vinny Testaverde signed with the Jets in June 1998 and was not guaranteed the starting job by Parcells over Glenn Foley. The 35-year-old took over in Week 3 and the Jets went on a magical ride that ended in an AFC Championship game loss. The Jets were ready for a run to the Super Bowl the next year when Testaverde’s Achilles popped in Week 1. He never recaptured the success of ’98.

Ryan Fitzpatrick got the starting job in 2015 after Smith’s jaw was broken. Fitzpatrick set a single-season franchise record with 31 touchdown passes, but three interceptions in Week 17 in Buffalo ended any playoff hopes. Fitzpatrick came back in 2016 after a contract standoff and could not duplicate the magic of 2015.

This is the bleak history that Wilson is facing. The baby-faced quarterback from BYU will become the latest to attempt to become the next Namath. 

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