No one would blame Sam Darnold for being bitter about the way his time with the New York Jets ended.
A year ago, Darnold was entrenched as the quarterback of the Jets' future. But in the span of just a few months last fall, he became expendable at age 23.
With each day of the offseason, it became increasingly clear that the Jets would use their No. 2 pick on a new quarterback. And last week, after enduring months of relentless speculation about his future, Darnold was dealt to the Panthers.
Monday, almost exactly a week after he was traded, Darnold spoke to reporters in Carolina for the first time. There was no bitterness or resentment in his voice, no cryptic shots at his former team. He seemed to be excited about the new opportunity and genuinely relieved that he knew where he'd be living and playing this fall.
But for the first time, it was also obvious just how much of a toll this last year took on Darnold. And even after what surely was a nightmarish final chapter for him with the Jets, there was a reminder of what could have been and what kind of person the Jets were moving on from.
"Obviously, getting drafted as high as I did, my expectations were to go in there, play 20 years and win Super Bowls,'' Darnold said. "That was the dream, but obviously it didn't work out.
"Anytime you go somewhere and set lofty goals and those goals aren't met, that's tough. When I heard the news they wanted to trade me, that was tough. Anytime you're not wanted somewhere, that's always a tough pill to swallow.''
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Sam Darnold was taken third overall in the 2018 NFL Draft by the New York Jets. (Photo: Brad Penner, USA TODAY Sports)
The trade is widely regarded as a win for everyone involved, and on paper, it's hard to argue with that notion. The Jets get three more draft picks (a 2021 sixth-round and a 2022 second- and fourth-rounder) to help them build properly around their new quarterback, whoever it is. And they avoid what surely would have been a distracting training camp competition between Darnold and the new guy.
Darnold gets a fresh start, free of all the baggage and pressure he would have faced had he returned to the Jets. And he gets to play for a team that has several dynamic weapons — something he's never experienced as a pro. And Panthers coach Matt Rhule and offensive coordinator Joe Brady should be a huge step up from the coaching staff he had last year in New York.
Darnold seemed to still be coming to terms with the trade during his interview, but after a week to reflect he had clearly gotten excited about the challenges and opportunities ahead of him. He was noticeably more upbeat than his final time in a Jets uniform back in January. But there were still plenty of signs that this had not been a pleasant experience for him.
"That was tough, I'm not going to lie," Darnold said of the constant uncertainty he faced this offseason. "Just because, I'm a planner. I like to have things planned out and know what the next step was going to be. The uncertainty … was, for lack of a better term, driving me insane."
But even after the fans turned on him the moment they realized they had a chance at Trevor Lawrence, even though the Jets completely failed to provide him with the weapons and stability that would have made his job much easier, Darnold wasn't looking for an escape hatch.
Monday, as he sat in a completely new facility with a different color scheme behind him, Darnold acknowledged that he was still hoping he'd get another shot with the Jets, right up until GM Joe Douglas called him to let him know that the trade was imminent.
"For me, personally, I believed I could make it work in New York,'' Darnold said. "Now that the trade has happened, obviously that [line] of thinking doesn't do me any good anymore. I'm ready to start here at Carolina and hit the ground running."
Maybe he's right. But we'll never know. He still hasn't played in a situation where he can show he's capable of or what he's not. The only thing we know now is he's going to get that chance in Carolina, and the Jets are going to get their chance to provide their new quarterback with the kind of help they never gave Darnold.
So what's Darnold's advice for the new guy?
"Have fun and don't pay attention to the media,'' Darnold said, and started laugh. "No, I'm joking, guys. The first part is definitely true. Just have fun with it. At the end of the day, it's football."
Of course, it's more than just football. But after the way Darnold handled his ridiculously tough ending with the Jets, you'd have to think more than a few of his former team's fans will be rooting for him on Sundays this fall.
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