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Sam Darnold’s Return to the Field Kicks Off a Fascinating Evaluation Period

It’s a safe assumption that the Jets will not make the playoffs this season, but the remaining games are not completely a lost cause, with all eyes locked on Darnold’s development under Adam Gase.
Sam Darnold

The Jets’ 2019 season might already be over in terms of playoff contention (only one team has started 0-4 and reached the postseason in modern NFL history). But Sam Darnold has been cleared for game action after missing the last four weeks with mononucleosis, which means one of the most fascinating evaluation periods in the NFL is about to begin.

The New York roster is prime for an overhaul this offseason under the new personnel staff headed by Joe Douglas. Head coach Adam Gase’s distaste for the direction being undertaken by former general manager Mike Maccagnan was obvious enough. What remains constant is Darnold and his head coach. The quarterback’s illness robbed us of a real chance to see how that tandem has developed behind the scenes, and how an offense might look with them in lockstep.

The Jets have plenty of remaining slack on their schedule: Two games against the sinking Dolphins and agame against the winless Bengals and winless Washington. The Giants and the Mason Rudolph-led Steelers are also favorable matchups.

This leaves little excuse to not see tangible progress; it’s a similarly fortuitous padded landing that Gregg Williams and Freddie Kitchens seized on at the end of the Browns’ 2018 season, which ended up becoming the stretch of games that ultimately sculpted our current opinion of and expectations for Baker Mayfield in 2019. While it may not be a totally realistic glimpse of what is to come, it could give us a top-range view of what Darnold is capable of against middling opponents.

Darnold remains the lone unknown out of the possibly-generational 2018 draft class. Josh Allen has 17 starts with the same offensive coordinator and is clearly ascending. Mayfield has 19 starts with a version of the same coaching staff and is starting to exhibit a clear set of strengths and weaknesses. Lamar Jackson has 12 with a combination of Greg Roman and Marty Mornhinweg and is beginning to look like a revelation at the position.

There is far less we can say about Darnold, who was injured in 2018 and head-locked by a drab offense that placed him in too many predictable passing situations without first establishing a tangible run threat. The Jets are the only team who truly uprooted their situation, unsatisfied with the early returns on their rookie’s development.

Jets fans can moan about another season without playoff implications but out of every team that is entirely lost in 2019, they have the most meaningful Sundays to come.

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