FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Contrary to popular belief, Adam Gase and Mike Maccagnan didn't disagree on everything during their brief, ill-fated partnership as the football leaders of the New York Jets. There was a large swath of common ground between them: Sam Darnold.
Amid the tension of their failed coach-general manager marriage, even as cracks within the organization began to form in March and April, Gase and Maccagnan were united in their enthusiasm about Darnold's long-term potential. Maccagnan entrusted Gase with the raw but gifted player who will be the GM's legacy. (Oh, the irony.) Gase took the gig because he saw Darnold as the first legitimate quarterback project of his coaching career.
Now, as the Jets attempt to resolve the chaos in the aftermath of Maccagnan's ouster, they turn their "help us" eyes to Darnold, hoping he can make everybody forget about the dysfunction. Frankly, it's unfair to put that kind of pressure on a 21-year-old with a 4-9 career record, but they believe Gase can make him part of the recent trend of quarterbacks who blossomed in their second year -- e.g., Carson Wentz, Jared Goff, Patrick Mahomes and Mitchell Trubisky.
"I hope so," Darnold said. "The expectations are always to produce and score points. If that happens, awesome. We don't plan on it being any other way."
But is it realistic? Let's peel back the layers.
No doubt, Darnold is in a better situation than last season, when he played for the defensive-minded Todd Bowles and an offensive coordinator (Jeremy Bates) who seemed overwhelmed by the job. Like his aforementioned peers, Darnold has an offensive coach who will handle the playcalling duties. There was a glimpse of the new dynamic in last week's open practice, with Gase using a walkie-talkie to radio plays directly to Darnold. As a result, the tempo was quick, as they seemed to be running plays faster than usual.
But this doesn't mean Darnold will have a Goff-like improvement in Year 2. There are so many other variables.
"Listen, I love the guy -- I've been so outspoken about him -- but I don't know if the situation is great," said former NFL quarterback and current ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky, who played under Gase with the Detroit Lions (2005-07). "Find me a guy that's been really good in the NFL over the last 10 years who's had in his first two years a new head coach, a new GM and two new offenses -- all in 13 months. That's very difficult for a guy to handle. And this isn't a team that has a bunch of really good players on it, offensively, a bunch of superstar weapons.
"Sam will be better and he'll make guys better, but Gase has to prove he can be a really good offensive coach without a Hall of Famer, without Peyton [Manning]," Orlovsky added. "That has to be proven. ... I don't want to pretend here. He's not the playcaller that Andy Reid or Sean McVay has shown to be, or Matt Nagy. He has not shown to be that."
Since serving as the Denver Broncos' coordinator in 2013 and 2014, when Manning & Co. set league scoring records, Gase has yet to preside over an offense that has cracked the top 20 in scoring or total yards. So, in a sense, he has something to prove with the Jets. He is known as a quarterback whisperer, but unless you count Tim Tebow's improbable/inexplicable season with the Broncos in 2011, Gase hasn't been around a young quarterback who has benefited from his whispers.
From all indications, Gase and Darnold are hitting it off. Gase loves Darnold's work ethic, the way he shows up early, stays late and pays attention to every detail. Theirs is the most important relationship in the organization. If it goes south, the way Gase and Maccagnan did, the Jets have no shot at winning games.
"He's just natural," Gase said of Darnold. "He rolls out of bed and he can sling that thing. It's fun to be around how intense he is every day, trying to make sure he gets better."
Darnold called Gase a "normal dude" who likes to clown around on occasion, but maintains his game face most of the time.
"It's tough to find anyone better than him," Darnold said. "It's been awesome to be able to build that relationship with him."
By every statistical measure, Darnold didn't have an impressive rookie season (31st in passer rating at 77.6 percent), but a closer look reveals some difficult circumstances. For instance: Nearly 20 percent of his attempts were "tight-window" throws, the third-highest percentage in the league, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. (A tight window is when the separation between the receiver and nearest defender is less than 1 yard at pass arrival.)
That's tough for any quarterback, let alone a rookie. Much of that can be attributed to the receivers' inability to gain consistent separation, but Darnold has to take some responsibility. A quarterback with more experience has better field vision and can make quick reads, allowing him to find receivers when they're open. Does anybody think Tom Brady's tight-window percentage (13.9) is so low because his receivers are blowing past defenders?
The addition of wide receiver Jamison Crowder, known for his short-area quickness, should help Darnold in that respect. Running back Le'Veon Bell could be a valuable "chess piece," Orlovsky believes, because he will help Darnold with his pre-snap reads. How so? Orlovsky said Gase can deploy Bell in different places in an attempt to make the defense declare its coverage -- i.e., man or zone. If Darnold has that information before the snap, it increases his chances of success.
While Orlovsky has doubts about whether Darnold can take a giant leap in his second year, he does believe Gase can help him cut down on negative plays (15 interceptions in 13 starts). He described Gase's scheme as rhythmic and structured for the quarterback and, in theory, that should help Darnold when the play breaks down. It's a delicate balance, though, because his improvisational ability is one of his best traits. You don't want to stifle that creativity -- the "magical sloppiness," as Orlovsky calls it.
"With Gase, the [bad] plays might become a throwaway or a short completion because he's playing in that rhythm, he's playing in that tempo, he's playing to the metronome beat of the offense," Orlovsky said. "That's where Gase can have his greatest impact on Sam."
A multibillion-dollar corporation is counting on that to happen.