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Is Sam Darnold’s Ghost Game the New Butt Fumble?

It’s been almost seven years since Mark Sanchez made one of the most outrageous fumbles in football, but Sam Darnold’s recent quote about seeing ghosts against the Patriots has the potential to reach that level of infamy.

We are a society that is easily swept up in narratives and platitudes. Singular, easy-to-digest moments have a way of defining something that is far more complex and nuanced.

I thought that on the night of Nov. 22, 2012, when then-Jets QB Mark Sanchez ran into the backside of his offensive linemen, Brandon Moore, and fumbled a football that was returned for a Patriots touchdown amid a 49-19 blowout loss. The Rex Ryan-led Jets were sinking due to a grave miscalculation in regards to locker room chemistry and the unsustainable weight placed on Sanchez’s shoulders to keep pace with a boisterous and talented defense (and a defensive minded head coach with a Trumpian flare). I remember how frustrated players like Moore were in the immediate aftermath at how the play was not only diagnosed on television but how it came to symbolize a team and an era. 

From that moment on, the Jets were butt fumble. Butt fumble was the Jets. It cast a palpable cloud over the franchise; a thick blanket that players present and future had to wear for more than a few seasons. It’s the kind of narrative that can swallow a place and time.

I felt a similar vibe while standing in the Jets’ locker room after their 33-0 loss to the Patriots on Monday Night Football. The game was a cascade of errors, filled with meme-able moments, like when Bill Belichick smirked as he tried to squeeze a few more seconds off the clock thanks to an obscure loophole in the rulebook. But ESPN airing a mic’d up Sam Darnold admitting to the coaching staff that he was “seeing ghosts” was on another level altogether.

Patriots linebacker Kyle Van Noy was surprised it was even spoken into existence. It’s an utterance that has a mythical feel, with both the ability to elevate an already-talented Patriots team beyond what they are and sink the Jets do depths previously unseen since 2012. If you are so data-driven that you can’t imagine something like this having a tangible impact on a locker room than I would guess you also weren’t there in 2012 to see things deteriorate from an emotional perspective. (I am aware the Jets beat two hapless teams in a row after the butt fumble game before losing three straight to end the season.)

Perhaps that is why Jets head coach Adam Gase is so upset with the network, mad that Darnold’s quote made it to the broadcast in the first place. While the better question might be why the team decided to do it in the first place against the best team in football, that doesn’t matter now. The “Ghost Game” (the “West Ghost Offense? Gase Ghost? Monday Fright Football?) can not be sucked back into the void. Every interception is now going to be laughably attributed to spirits from beyond the grave. How much do we want to bet the Jaguars have a Halloween theme for next Sunday’s game in Jacksonville?

While Darnold may ultimately be good enough to overcome this, and Gase schematically diverse enough to coach his team past it—things I both believe to be true, by the way, especially given their schedule moving forward—the last thing you want to saddle your developing franchise quarterback with is this kind of metaphysical counterweight.

It’s real. We’re all human. And the way the team handles it from here on out could define a significant chunk of the Jets’ future.

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