Dec 15, 2018; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold (14) on the sidelines during the fourth quarter against the Houston Texans at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports


Lichtenstein: Darnold Has Been Rejuvenated Since Return From Injury

Steve Lichtenstein
December 16, 2018 - 12:12 pm

My friend Chris is into conspiracy theories.

When Jets rookie quarterback Sam Darnold was diagnosed with a right foot sprain he sustained in a 13-6 loss in Miami on November 4, Chris found it to be too convenient.

At the time, Darnold appeared to be regressing after a promising first six weeks of the season. The Jets had lost three in a row, with Darnold sporting a two touchdown-to-seven interception ratio in the skid.

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Chris is not a doctor, but he firmly believed that if the Jets were 6-3 instead of 3-6, Darnold could have suited up at any point in the subsequent three games over four weeks (including the bye week) he missed.

In Chris’ view, the Jets manufactured an injury charade to give Darnold an opportunity to take a step back and watch 39-year old backup Josh McCown from the sideline without the team being subjected to the distraction of a quarterback controversy.

I’ve always laughed it off, but let’s assume for the moment that it was true. Well, based on what’s transpired since Darnold returned to action last week in Buffalo, it would have been the smartest thing Jets coach Todd Bowles has done in his otherwise dreadful four-year tenure.

Darnold has looked rejuvenated in the two games, beating the Bills, 27-23, with a late fourth-quarter touchdown drive and then just falling short in Saturday’s 29-22 home loss to Houston.

Darnold was magnificent against the Texans, playing turnover-free in completing 24-of-38 passes for 253 yards and two touchdowns. Though he ran six times for 35 yards, he was at his best when improvising behind the line of scrimmage, a necessity on this team since it lacks playmakers who can gain consistent separation on their initial routes.  On the run or in the pocket, he threw darts where only his receiver could make a play on them.

MORE: Jets Fall To Texans 29-22, Drop To 4-10 On Season

Once Jeremy Bates, Bowles’ beleaguered offensive coordinator, took off the training wheels late in the first half, Darnold engineered a comeback from a 16-3 deficit. The Jets took the lead with five minutes remaining in the game when Elijah McGuire flowed into the end zone from two yards out thanks to a wave of pushing blockers that looked like a scene from the movie “Little Giants.”

Alas, the Jets defense, which played remarkably well for most of the second half, fell apart again in crunch time, surrendering the go-ahead touchdown on Houston’s next possession. Trailing, 26-22 at the two-minute warning, Darnold’s fourth-and-14 pass was dropped by wide receiver Robbie Anderson past the first-down marker.

“It was just a little bad judgement by me,” Anderson said. “I came a little bit too much under it and it hit right off my fingertips.”

It was the third egregious drop in a key situation by one of Darnold’s receivers on Saturday.  In addition, the Jets’ running backs totaled 55 yards on 25 carries. The offensive line had Darnold running for his life, yielding three sacks and numerous QB hits (seven officially, but that seemed to me like a vast understatement).         

In other words, Darnold could use more help. Only then will we find out where his ceiling is.

As for this season, Darnold is back on the progression train with two games remaining. Bowles thinks it’s been just a matter of Darnold learning the offense better, but there’s definitely more to it. After last week’s win, Darnold noted the ways he benefitted from the mini-layoff.

“Just being able to watch Josh and how he goes about practice—walk-throughs, the way he watches tape, what he does to get ready for a game plan,’ Darnold said.  “All that stuff helped me a ton.  It was just good to just get that experience a little bit—obviously I want to be playing--that’s always what I want to be doing.  But I think in hindsight, it was good to be able to be able to experience sitting behind Josh and watch him kind of go about a week.”

Getting Darnold back on the right track won’t be enough to save Bowles’ job at the end of the season. He has posted double-digit loss totals in three consecutive seasons, a feat no Jets coach has ever managed in their inglorious history.

Knowing that, I can give Bowles and his staff credit for helping Darnold use the time off constructively, even if I don’t believe it was all a set-up.

For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Devils and Jets, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.