ESPN’s Sam Darnold Mono Graphic Is the Culmination of 60 Years of Jets Football

Monday Night Football's graphic about Sam Darnold's diagnosis.
Monday Night Football’s graphic about Sam Darnold’s diagnosis.

It has taken only two weeks for the 2019 New York Jets to experience the kind of pathos that has long defined their franchise. An opening-day collapse against the Buffalo Bills would’ve been cruel enough for your typical NFL team. But these are the Jets, so that on-field loss was followed by a defeat suffered by second-year quarterback Sam Darnold’s immune system. Darnold has been diagnosed with mononucleosis, an ailment that will keep him out of action for at least a month. The Jets’ first game without him was a 23–3 drubbing against the Cleveland Browns on Monday Night Football. The on-screen graphic above, created by ESPN to mark the occasion, immediately went viral (in the internet sense of the word, not the Darnold one).

While the Monday Night Football crew often produces quirky clips (for example, ESPN aired a vignette depicting the parade of failed Jets kickers as Bachelor contestants), the Darnold graphic probably wasn’t intended to be funny. As the image filled the screen, announcer Joe Tessitore explained how mono can result in potentially serious complications for one’s spleen. It was hard not to chuckle, though, at the sight of Darnold mean-mugging and pointing about his “kissing disease” diagnosis. (Reports indicate the quarterback is “already feeling better,” in case you need further permission to laugh.)

These in-game graphics are inherently goofy. Players stand in front of green screens and are told to act fierce or tough so the networks can place their images next to statistics or other relevant info. These are usually recorded before the season begins, and they can’t possibly account for unforeseen twists like Darnold’s contraction of a virus. A static headshot would have sufficed, but ESPN clearly didn’t want to wait until the Jets’ Week 7 Monday Night Football appearance to roll this very intimidating footage.

Few teams could go toe to toe with the Cleveland Browns on Monday Night Football and come out as both losers and the subject of an iconic meme, but the Jets were made for this moment. After all, this is the franchise that knows how to provide mirth to an otherwise dour sport.

It has now been seven years since Mark Sanchez’s iconic butt fumble, meaning the team was long overdue for a new example of its truest sense of being. Sure, Sanchez’s ass-induced turnover was hilarious, but that kind of Keystone Cops slapstick is a little off-brand. The Jets were two years removed from their last playoff appearance at the time, and while Sanchez running into his teammates’ hindquarters is an apt metaphor for a team hitting the wall, it was probably too action-packed. Since Joe Namath led the Jets to their lone Super Bowl win in 1968, the franchise has existed mostly in a state of doleful, goofy unfulfillment. What better way to represent this than a graphic of Darnold vamping next to the words “OUT INDEFINITELY: MONONUCLEOSIS”?

Believe it or not, but archeologists have found evidence of optimism among Jets fans prior to the 2019 season. They had hired a new, offensive-minded head coach and signed a superstar running back, setting the stage for their talented young quarterback to succeed. But that was back in August, before said quarterback literally had to be placed in quarantine. What’s surprising isn’t that Darnold got sick, but that it happened so early in the year. The butt fumble didn’t occur until Thanksgiving 2012. Where do the Jets go from here in their six-decade-long commedia dell’arte performance?

This all reminds me of an old joke. A man goes to the doctor and says he’s depressed. Nothing is going his way, and misery has become a way of life. The doctor says, “I know just the trick. The New York Jets are in town tonight. Everyone loves their hilarious antics. Go see them, it should cheer you right up.” The man starts sobbing and says, “But doctor … I’m the New York Jets’ quarterback.” The doctor nods. ”You also have mono,” he says.