By all accounts, Sam Darnold loves being quarterback of the Jets, loved playing for Jets fans before COVID-19 shooed them all out of MetLife Stadium, even loved the prospects of having Adam Gase as his play-caller.
There isn’t anything he can do about the team around him, nor about finding himself trapped inside a rebuild that appears destined to end with a 10th straight season on the outside of the playoffs looking in.
But if he wants to stay a Jet, he should do himself a favor and start playing the way the franchise expects its franchise quarterback to be playing in his third season, after 28 starts, after showing signs over the second half of last season that he was ready for takeoff.
And most of all, start winning.
That, of course, will be easier said than done for him.
“My job is to execute the play, and find completions, put the ball in the end zone,” Darnold said. “That’s all that matters, but at the end of the day, people judge me and the head coach on wins and losses. Those are the only things that matter to me. So anything else just doesn’t matter.”
And there is the accuracy you want from your franchise quarterback. His record as a starter is 11-17. Guilty with an explanation: He learned a new offense with a new head coach in 2019 and missed three games with mononucleosis. His offensive line needed a complete overhaul. Robby Anderson left for Carolina. Le’Veon Bell has not been the star he was in Pittsburgh. On and on it has gone.
Darnold cannot afford to be dragged down by the kind of treacherous environment that conspires to stall or, worse, sabotage any young quarterback’s development or, worse, career. It appears to be a forbidding challenge.
And the reason he cannot afford to is the towering specter of Trevor Lawrence. And Justin Fields. Or Trey Lance, should he mimic Joe Burrow’s meteoric rise a year ago.
If Darnold cannot figure out a way, as Gase looks for a few good men with a pulse for Sunday’s game in Indianapolis, to lead the Jets to enough wins so GM Joe Douglas is not within striking distance of the first two picks of the 2021 NFL Draft with all the draft capital at his disposal — or worst-case scenario, is in possession of the first or second pick — then it is possible that Darnold will be the former franchise quarterback of the Jets.
Because Douglas, should he be armed with the first-overall pick — it is impossible even after only two lousy games to put anything past these Adam Gase Jets — would not and should not be able to resist the temptation of a prospect [Lawrence] who has drawn comparisons to Andrew Luck coming out of Stanford.
Darnold is much younger and healthier than Peyton Manning was when it was time for him to move aside for Luck and leave Indianapolis, but it would be negligent of any general manager to pass on Lawrence. And Fields might be in play as well in a 1-2 scenario akin to Luck-Robert Griffin III and Jameis Winston-Marcus Mariota.
So Darnold might very well be holding his own fortunes, as well as his team’s, in his hands over the rest of this season.
That was an imposter wearing No. 14 in Buffalo. He was better in Week 2 but couldn’t get his team in the end zone early, and the game was lost by halftime. “He settled down. His feet were calm,” OC Dowell Loggains said. “I thought he was in a good place mentally, thought he had a good mindset the whole game.”
Even with Mekhi Becton bludgeoning defenders at left tackle, Darnold cannot lean on the running game, and he would undoubtedly welcome Don Maynard into his huddle right about now with Jamison Crowder and Breshad Perriman sidelined. And Maynard is 85.
Darnold’s mechanics have been erratic, and there are times when he cannot, or will not, stand tall in the pocket and deliver the ball. His decision-making has made you roll your eyes at times.
But he was the third-overall pick of the 2018 NFL Draft for a reason, and it is premature to write him off. From Day 1, he has shown that he is wired the way you want your young franchise quarterback to be wired. He is resilient. On his best days, because of his improvisational ability, he has drawn comparisons to a young Ben Roethlisberger. And to Eli Manning for the easy, even-keeled way he navigates the New York market.
In his defense, he has been severely handcuffed and handicapped by the absence of an explosive vertical threat, which compelled Gase to pull back the reins on the play-calling against the 49ers. Loggains liked the way Darnold went through his progressions. “Coverage dictates where the ball goes sometimes,” Loggains said. Too often, sometimes. The old take-what-they-give-you offense. Instead of take-what-you-want.
“Explosive plays are gonna find themselves, whether it’s a broken tackle, or you get a shot downfield … but if we’re moving the sticks, and we’re marching the ball down the field, we’re good with that,” Darnold said. “At the end of the day, we just gotta find a way to put the ball in the end zone.”
A good idea. The smart money has 11-17 getting worse before it gets better. If it ever gets better. Fair or unfair, for Darnold’s sake, it better.