New York Jets: The next 14 games could well decide Sam Darnold’s future

After a dismal start to the 2020 season, Sam Darnold and the New York Jets have 14 opportunities to get this era back on track.

Two weeks into the 2020 season, the New York Jets are more or less removed from playoff contention.

It’s certainly foolhardy to eliminate a team from the NFL postseason in September, especially when playoff real estate increased by a spot in each conference. But the Jets (0-2) have done nothing to suggest they belong among the league’s contenders. The latest disaster, a 31-13 loss at the hands of the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, didn’t even have the added luxury of a somewhat respectable final score like the 27-17 defeat in Buffalo provided on opening weekend.

“We haven’t shown progress,” linebacker Jordan Jenkins said, per Brian Costello of the New York Post. “It’s been rinse and repeat for the last two games. It’s either we’re going to keep getting embarrassed or we’re going to respond.”

Perhaps most disappointing in the Jets’ process has been the lack of progress on offense. Even with the expanded playoff capital, it was a tall task to put the Jets in the preseason brackets. Thus, it felt like a decent year for Sam Darnold to develop into the franchise quarterback and consistent contributor the Jets envisioned when they chose him third overall in 2018.

The offensive arsenal went through a considerable downgrade over the offseason, letting Robby Anderson walk and cutting the injured Quincy Enunwa loose. Upon their departures, Darnold was left with no receivers from his rookie season depth chart. Medium-risk, high-reward receiver options were brought in via Breshad Perriman (granted a one-year deal with $6 million in guaranteed after a strong December in Tampa Bay) and second-round pick Denzel Mims.

So while question marks lined up in his receiver spots, assurances of a revamped offensive line (headlined by first-round choice Mekhi Becton) gave Darnold some reassurance. Despite little help around him, particularly on the offensive line, Darnold still managed to produce occasional flashes of brilliance. The end of his rookie season saw him earn a come-from-behind win in Buffalo and go blow-for-blow with Deshaun Watson and Aaron Rodgers. His first game back from illness was a 338-yard, two-touchdown masterpiece in a win over Dallas last season.

2020 was on pace to be full of games like that. It served as a chance for Darnold to become a leader. It was set to be a chance to develop chemistry with new teammates that earn long-term rights in a trying campaign. It was a year where the Jets could officially become Darnold’s team, especially with Jamal Adams napalming his New York bridges on his way to Seattle.

But, so far, 2020 has only been a year of regression.

For as much as head coach Adam Gase has felt the temperature rise on his proverbial seat, a good portion of the Jets’ fanbase must learn that it’s indeed possible to hold both he and Darnold accountable for their respective flaws. In year three, Darnold is simply making plays that a third-year franchise quarterback can’t be making.

An interception against Buffalo in Week 1 saw him throw across his body. He ran out of bounds for a loss to escape the Bills pass rush. Things were a little better against the 49ers…particularly on Darnold rollouts…but that didn’t change the final result.

“No one’s yelling at each other. We understand we have to stay together,” Darnold said after the loss, per team writer Randy Lange. “It’s only our second game of the season. Obviously we didn’t envision these two games going like this. But we’ve just got to keep our heads down (and) go to work.”

Darnold’s rough pair of 2020 outings have not only had premature mock drafts pencil the Jets in at the top of the order but also attached Clemson star quarterback and consensus top choice Trevor Lawrence’s name to the hypothetical selection. Opportunities await Darnold in the coming weeks to change the minds of fans, analysts, and New York decision-makers.

Casting Darnold’s struggles in a brighter light is the fact his rookie contract is set to expire after next season. For perhaps the first time, there could doubt lingers over whether Darnold will be granted a long-term deal. Back-to-back tough showings is slowly turning a year of risks and consequence-free football into a make-or-break campaign…a theme that’s becoming all too prevalent under Gase. Ryan Tannehill escaped the nearly annual viewings under the microscope to become a solid contributor in Tennessee. If the Jets aren’t careful, Darnold could undergo a similar NFL journey.

At the same time, the Jets have to what they can to help Darnold, a quarterback who has managed to produce some memorable moments in New York green despite the ineffectiveness around him. So far, the would-be solutions of Perriman and Mims have yielded only injuries. Chris Herndon has yet to recapture the form of his rookie season. The top solution among the amatuer general managers amongst the Jets’ fanbase has been to can the current coaching staff.

But is that fair to do to Darnold? Is a third round of new coaching in what would be his fourth season something he wants?

Even Sunday’s disaster featured ever-so-brief glimpses of Darnold brilliance, primarily a would-be sack that he turned into a touchdown pass. But the sheer number of mistakes and miscalculations that have been made in his brief time in New York would take its toll on anyone. It’s fair enough to criticize Darnold’s role in the Jets’ fall, but it’s time to analyze who shoulders more of the blame. If it’s Darnold, especially with the fifth-year option conversation looming, then it’s time for he and the offense to hunker down and overcome the numerous obstacles facing them. If it’s on Gase and the coaching staff, then they have to do something, anything, to justify team CEO Christopher Johnson’s label of “brilliant”. Gase and company may have to do it sooner rather than later; coaches have been shown to be far more expendable than franchise quarterbacks.

Even at a mere 0-2, the Jets are likely too far gone from the AFC playoff picture. But these next 14 games may mean everything the team’s offensive outlook.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

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