Why the Robert Saleh hire could be great news for the Jets future of Sam Darnold

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Ralph Vacchiano
·5 min read
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New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold throws ball vs New England Patriots
New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold throws ball vs New England Patriots

The reaction from around the NFL was universally positive when the Jets hired Robert Saleh to be their next head coach. His former players praised the choice. His new players seemed to love it.

Sam Darnold might love it, too.

There are a lot of reasons to believe that the hiring of the 41-year-old Saleh will be great for the 23-year-old Darnold, especially if he was sincere when he said he wanted to be a “Jet for life.” Because with his future hanging in the balance, and with the Jets pondering whether to keep him or take a quarterback with the No. 2 pick in the draft, this might turn out to be his best chance to remain in New York.

And the reason for that is simple: The system the Jets are expected to run on offense could be a much better fit for him than the one he ran the last two years under former head coach Adam Gase. Saleh is bringing 49ers passing game coordinator Mike LaFleur with him to run the offense, according to a source, and he’ll surely run the same Kyle Shanahan offense they ran in San Francisco.

That offense is at least somewhat similar to the scheme Darnold ran as a rookie under then-offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates. And while the Jets’ offense didn’t exactly light it up that year – they ranked 29th in 2018 under Bates' direction, only slightly better than the 32nd it ranked in both of Gase’s seasons – it was clearly Darnold’s most promising year.

“The system could be perfect for him,” said one NFL executive. “It really gets the most out of its quarterbacks and doesn’t put a lot of stress on them to carry the whole team. He still needs help. They’ll still have to add weapons. But it’s worked for a lot of quarterbacks – some less talented than him.”

The offense Darnold ran as a rookie wasn’t an exact match for what LaFleur figures to bring, but that was the season when the Jets quarterback seemed most comfortable on the field. In 13 starts as a rookie, Darnold threw for 2,865 yards, completed 57.7 percent of his passes and had 17 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. Those were pedestrian numbers, but most importantly he looked like a different quarterback over his final four games, after he returned from a three-game absence due to a foot injury. He completed 64 percent of his passes and threw for six touchdowns with just one interception in that span.

Darnold never looked that comfortable under Gase. Of course, that had a lot to do with circumstances, such as Darnold’s own injuries and illnesses, a crumbling offensive line, a lack of weapons and a string of injuries to offensive players. Given all that, it was never really clear what Gase’s system was supposed to be.

Still, it’s easy to connect the dots and see why the Shanahan/LaFleur offense will be better. The system is a West Coast-style offense, even though Shanahan abhors that label since it’s more reliant on a power running game and incorporates more shots down the field. And it has its obvious roots in the system Mike Shanahan, Kyle’s father, ran so successfully as the head coach in Denver from 1995-2008 and again in Washington from 2010-13.

Kyle Shanahan was his father’s offensive coordinator in Washington. He then obviously taught the system to LaFleur. And Bates learned it when he was an offensive assistant on Mike Shanahan’s staff in Denver from 2006-08.

The system, of course, has changed over time and with different circumstances, quarterbacks and people calling the plays. But there is no doubt that it works. The two Shanahans have run it as head coach or offensive coordinator with eight different franchises over 35 separate seasons, and their offenses finished in the Top 10 an astounding 22 times. In 17 of those seasons they finished in the Top 5.

And more often than not, they weren’t running it with a top quarterback. Yes, Mike Shanahan had two Hall-of-Famers for a few of those seasons -- Steve Young in San Francisco and John Elway in Denver. But they also had Top 5 offenses with Brian Griese, Jake Plummer, Jay Cutler, Robert Griffin III, Matt Schaub, Matt Ryan, and most recently Jimmy Garoppolo.

“Most of those guys had their best seasons in this offense,” the source said. “They couldn’t duplicate that success with anyone else.”

That obviously bodes well for Darnold, who is clearly at a crossroads in his career. Yes, LaFleur could probably just as easily teach the system to a rookie like Justin Fields or Zach Wilson if the Jets choose to go in that direction. But their easiest path to contending might be by sticking with a quarterback who has already had a taste of the system, and who has three years of experience already in the NFL.

That would allow the Jets to use that No. 2 pick on a badly needed receiver. Or they could trade down to a team that needs a quarterback, still get a top receiver, and add a bounty of other picks to help fill their many holes.

Since Saleh hasn’t spoken publicly and Douglas hasn’t tipped his hand, it’s not certain what the Jets will do – if they even know at this point, with two months still to go before free agency begins and more than three months until the draft. But keeping Darnold definitely seems like a more viable option now with the coaching duo of Saleh and LaFleur.

And that could turn out to be a very good thing for everyone involved.