Mark Kiszla: After hating on Russell Wilson, maybe Sean Payton should give Sam Darnold some love

Sam Darnold needs a second chance to prove his worth in the NFL almost as desperately as the Broncos need a quarterback. Could this be the start of a wonderful bromance? “I believe in myself. I know I’m a good football player.

I know I can help an NFL team win,” Darnold told me, as he kicked back comfortably on a padded chair, wearing a bright red No. 14 of the San Francisco 49ers across his chest during Super Bowl week. Yes, he is fully aware the league tattooed an “L” on his forehead for the sin of being a draft bust in New York, after the Jets disappointed John Elway by selecting Darnold third overall in the first round, forcing the Broncos to scramble.

Two picks later, Elway settled on edge-rusher Bradley Chubb, when he could’ve had You Know Who from the University of Wyoming. Hey, why re-open that old wound by mentioning the name of Josh Allen? Since that fateful April night in 2018, little has gone right for the Broncos or Darnold – well, except for the nearly $54 million in salary he has been paid by the Jets, Carolina Panthers and Niners. Being a draft bust ain’t bad work if you can get it.

And there’s always such a shortage of playoff-worthy quarterbacks that the NFL has little choice except to believe in second chances. “There’s no question Sam Darnold can be a starting quarterback in this league,” said our old friend Brian Griese, who once gallantly tried, but ultimately failed, to uphold the Hall of Fame legacy of Elway in Denver. Griese now serves as a voice of reason in his role as a San Francisco quarterbacks coach keenly aware how difficult the job can be in a microwave society that has zero patience for careless pick-sixes thrown by the young franchise savior.

The Jets committed the error of handing Darnold the job before he was ready, making a 21-year-old rookie out of USC the youngest quarterback to get his first career start on the season's opening weekend since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970. And how did Darnold respond? He threw a pick-six to Detroit safety Quandre Diggs on his first NFL passing attempt. “I never felt the pressure of changing a franchise’s fortunes,” Darnold said.

“I understand the quarterback gets too much of the credit or the blame. So I never looked at it in New York as, 'My job is to bring this franchise back. ’ I looked at it as working my hardest every single day in practice and then going out on Sunday, trying to throw completions and touchdown passes, because that’s my job.

” Game analysis and insights from The Gazette sports staff including columns by Woody Paige and Paul Klee. So why didn’t it work in the Big Apple? At the tender age of 21, Darnold was 10 feet tall and bulletproof. Or so he mistakenly believed.

Darnold had yet to grow into a man that understood his limitations. “I needed to learn to be more patient and take what the defense gives you,” Darnold said. “In college and high school, I could run around and make plays.

As we’ve seen with all the great quarterbacks in this league, whether it’s Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen or Brock Purdy, they can all run around and make plays. But sometimes that gets you in trouble, too. In the NFL, it’s a much finer line.

You have to learn where that line is. ” The failure by Darnold to make the Jets a Super Bowl contender has led to one impatient mistake after another in New York, culminated by an ill-fated, ridiculously expensive trade with Green Bay for Aaron Rodgers, who is now 40 years old and reaching for miracle cures to recover from an Achilles injury. Those panic moves by the Jets should look at least vaguely familiar to the sad eyes in Broncos Country, where our local football team doesn’t really know what to do with the big, smelly contract of Russell Wilson except eat it.

Darnold, however, has seen with his own eyes that the answer for a team willing to make a deal with the devil for a QB can perhaps find more happiness shopping in the bargain bin. Not even two years ago, Darnold found himself at training camp in Carolina, competing for the starting job with Baker Mayfield, another fallen star of the 2018 draft, whose stint in Cleveland as the No. 1 overall choice ended with bitter feelings of betrayal.

It required six years of hard knocks, but after signing a prove-it contract for an NFL pittance of $4 million, Mayfield earned his redemption and a much bigger pay day by leading the Tampa Bay Bucs to the playoffs this season. “Baker is a good friend of mine,” Darnold said. “So I was very happy to watch him go out there and do what he loves to do: Play football, compete and do it at a high level in the NFL.

We both know we’re capable of it. We both have that belief in ourselves. ” I suspected with a fair amount of certainty Sean Payton was fond of Mayfield before the Broncos coach told USA Today during Super Bowl week that he and every other QB-needy team now feel like, “I’m looking for Baker.

Where’s he at? He’s a free agent. ” With the price of divorcing Wilson with a hellacious dose of salary-cap suffering, there’s probably not a better low-priced gamble on the free-agent market than Darnold, who won’t celebrate his 27th birthday until June. He has thrown 55 more NFL touchdown passes than current Broncos QB Jarrett Stidham, who is nearly a year older than Darnold.

“Sam has been in so many scenarios that were not stable during his pro career that any quarterback would struggle,” Griese said. “But after building back a solid foundation from the feet up, there’s no question in my mind that he has the ability to throw the ball and process everything on the field in a way that will allow him to succeed in the NFL. ” Far be it for a knucklehead like me to tell a certified football genius of Payton’s stature how to spend his time in the film room.

But he might want to take a peek at a game from Thanksgiving weekend in 2022, when Russell Wilson and the Broncos lost 23-10 to Carolina. The quarterback of the Panthers that November day? Darnold. .

Mark Kiszla
Filed 02.18.2024

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