Get a good look at Sam Darnold on Sunday, Jets fans. It could be the last time you see him in green.
With significant upheaval expected following the finale against the Patriots, Darnold’s time with the Jets could be up. His coach, Adam Gase, almost certainly will be gone, and the new coach — whoever that is — and general manager Joe Douglas will have a decision to make at quarterback.
Though the two-win Jets will not land the crown jewel of this year’s draft in Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, they are locked into the second pick, where Ohio State’s Justin Fields, North Dakota State’s Trey Lance and BYU’s Zach Wilson may all be possibilities. Darnold has yet to prove he can be the guy, and his fifth-year option that has to be exercised by early May would cost around $25 million.
“I’m a Jet now,” the 23-year-old Darnold said when asked about his precarious future with the only organization he has known. “I know we all like to think of hypotheticals and what-ifs, but I’m a Jet right now and I love being here. I love the guys in the locker room and I love going to work every single day here.
“I absolutely believe my best days are ahead,” he later said, in talking about the dismal season.
The Jets thought they finally had answered their long-standing quarterback question in the 2018 draft when they traded up to third pick and selected Darnold. A star at USC, Darnold was supposed to be that franchise quarterback Jets fans had been waiting decades for.
But Darnold has fallen well short of expectations, in part because of the lack of help around him, be it coaches, talent or both. He has never appeared in more than 13 games in a single season and the Jets have failed to finish at .500 in his three seasons under center. He has thrown more interceptions (nine) than touchdown passes (eight) this season and has a career-low quarterback rating of 72.3, the worst in the NFL.
It certainly didn’t help that the Jets didn’t bring back his best receiver, Robby Anderson, and there were injuries to rookie wideout Denzel Mims and newcomer Breshad Perriman. But Darnold hasn’t used that as an excuse.
“I think early in the year I was way too inconsistent,” Darnold said, adding, “I think there’s been stretches where I haven’t played nearly as well as I should have, and I’ll be the first one to admit it.”
Darnold has performed better of late, without a turnover in his last three games and three touchdown passes. The health of his top three receivers in Perriman, Mims and Jamison Crowder has of course helped him after playing with very few weapons for so much of the season. Darnold has played with an almost completely different offensive line this year and has never been sacked fewer than 30 times in a season. Struggles up front have been a mainstay of his time with the Jets.
“It’s just about the consistency, but it’s also consistency with the guys around you,” Gase said. “When you’re a young player, you need to have a nucleus of core guys around you that you can grow with, that can help you develop as a player. And at the quarterback spot, if you don’t have that it’s really tough to make the strides you need to make.”
Never one to rock the boat, Darnold said Thursday he hasn’t thought about his future past Sunday. He hasn’t spoken to Douglas, either. His focus is on Sunday. He wants to close out the season with a third straight victory, to continue his turnover-free play.
“I’m worried about getting a win and helping this team get our third of the season,” Darnold said.
It may be his last chance as a Jet to do so.