Between the time I left amNewYork’s office on Tuesday night and the time my head hit the pillow, the script had flipped on the Big Apple’s two NFL franchises.
Shortly before 8 p.m., news broke that the Giants had traded Odell Beckham Jr., their immensely talented but often problematic star wide receiver, to the Cleveland Browns for first- and third-round picks in this year’s draft and 23-year-old safety Jabrill Peppers.
About four hours later, reports indicated that the Jets had reached an agreement to sign free agent running back Le’Veon Bell, twice a first-team All-Pro selection who sat out 2018 in a well-publicized contract dispute with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The winds of change already had begun whipping around MetLife Stadium across the Hudson River in East Rutherford, New Jersey, before the high-profile departure and arrival. For two consecutive years following a strong 11-5 campaign in 2016, the Giants were expected to be in the postseason hunt — at worst — or, best-case scenario, to bring home the franchise’s fifth Lombardi Trophy as Super Bowl champs. They’ve won just a third of their games since, struggling to the league’s second-worst record over that span. The only team worse? Cleveland, which just got immensely better after its best campaign in years.
The Jets, only slightly better than Big Blue over 2017-18, haven’t been to the playoffs since 2010, with just one winning mark in the intervening eight seasons. But Gang Green already has in its possession something their fellow Meadowlands residents must find sooner rather than later: a quarterback of the future. Sam Darnold, passed on by the Giants with the No. 2 pick in last year’s NFL Draft, went off the board immediately after the G-Men landed stud running back Saquon Barkley.
Darnold’s rookie season went about as well as could be expected of a 21-year-old. As one of 11 QBs since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger to start a game in his age-21 season — a list that includes past and present standouts and former top overall picks Drew Bledsoe, Michael Vick, Alex Smith and Matthew Stafford — the young Jets passer finished with the second-most touchdown passes (17) on that list. Darnold performed better over the season’s final month, offering promise of brighter days ahead.
Darnold now has a brand-new weapon in Bell, both a top rusher and pass-catching back during the five seasons he played in Pittsburgh. The Jets also attempted to upgrade on the offensive line, acquiring 2016 All-Pro selection Kelechi Osemele from the Raiders, and are likely to continue fortifying Darnold’s protection through free agency and the draft — in which they possess the No. 3 overall pick once again.
Meanwhile, the Giants are in a full-force rebuild. Indications from the team point to 38-year-old Eli Manning returning for a 16th season under center for Big Blue. Unlike fellow 2004 draftees Ben Roethlisberger of the Steelers and Philip Rivers of the Los Angeles Chargers, Manning clearly isn’t a difference maker on the field any more. He’s playing the way late-30s passers have been expected to look for pro football’s entire history. Sticking with Eli, now an average QB at best, and dealing away his greatest asset in Beckham is a clear white flag on 2019, six months before Week 1.
It gets worse. Giants brass, headed by general manager Dave Gettleman, balked at placing a franchise tag on All-Pro safety Landon Collins at about $11 million for the season. He’ll make more than that in base salary with his new team, the NFC East rival Washington Redskins. That a noted young leader of the defense leaves without compensation has to sting the Giants’ fan base.
Don’t forget the financial cost of shipping out Beckham just one year after awarding him a record-breaking contract. Because of the nature of the NFL salary cap structure, the Giants must eat $16 million in dead money this season, according to Over The Cap. That gives them a league-high $33.8 million in dead money on their books for 2019, according to Spotrac. If your allegiance is to Big Blue, save yourself a headache and try not to think of all the roster upgrades the Giants could make without such a salary cap mess.
Rarely since the merger has the Giants’ situation looked more dire. Other than the wasteland decade of the 1970s, only the period between Phil Simms’ retirement after the 1993 season and Manning’s acquisition in 2004 saw this much uncertainty. Even over those 10 years, the franchise never went more than two years in a row without a winning record and played in one Super Bowl.
The ’70s were no kinder to the Jets, but the franchise with a 50-year Super Bowl drought has suffered plenty. A brief, period of relative prosperity in the early ’80s gave way to a 10-year span without a winning record as it searched desperately for the franchise quarterback missing since injuries robbed Joe Namath of his 1960s shine. The likes of vagabond Vinny Testaverde, perpetually injured but highly accurate Chad Pennington and utter bust Mark Sanchez oversaw intermittent team success from the late ’90s through the first decade of the new millennium. None stuck around long enough to change the narrative of a moribund franchise.
Not since Broadway Joe guaranteed victory 50 years ago have the Jets been heading squarely in the right direction while their local rivals in blue languished. Gang Green finally has an opening to run to daylight and steal the New York spotlight from the Giants for the good they do on the gridiron, rather than their follies on and off the field. As for Big Blue, they had better hope their full-bore rebuild goes swimmingly. They don’t want to end up like all those Jets teams they outshined for decades.