With apologies to former New York Jets head coach Bill Parcells, not all records are the same. That’s actually a corruption of what Parcells really said (probably first when he was the Giants’ coach, too), which was: “You are what your record says you are.” That might be true within a given season, but in the case of the Jets the past two seasons, we beg to differ.
The Jets were in the same spot in 2017 that they’re currently in heading into the Week 8 matchup with the Chicago Bears: sitting with a 3-4 record, unclear if they can compete at all down the stretch.
That similarity is unquestioned, and last week’s 37-17 loss to the Minnesota Vikings has this year’s team — just like in 2017 — teetering on the edge a bit. But with Sam Darnold, the Jets’ future appears to be fairly bright, even with Darnold suffering the worst game in his career to this point.
Darnold was no match for the Vikings’ defense, throwing three picks after a solid first quarter, and neither were his receivers. They could not gain any separation, and Darnold was trying his best to make tight-window throws that he shouldn’t have to try to make. That’s the bottom line with this Jets team right now as they reach the midpoint of their season: There are a few things to like but not nearly enough.
Last year’s team had less to like about it, as solid as Josh McCown was in an untenable situation. He battled his way to a career season and kept them from abject failure to the same point of the season. But following a brutal loss at Miami, in which the Jets blew a two-touchdown lead in the fourth quarter, they just fell apart.
A young locker room imploded, and the Jets would lose seven of their final nine games. Even some noble efforts — beating the Chiefs at home, losing a hard-fought game at New Orleans — couldn’t sugarcoat the team’s late crumble overall. They headed into the offseason with a lot of questions about the direction of the franchise.
But with one lucky stroke, blindly trading up into the draft range where Darnold would fall to them, there has been hope. The Jets undoubtedly are on better overall footing with Darnold taking lumps but providing the team with a glimmer of real hope.
Darnold has 10 TDs and 10 picks, with at least one INT in every start but one. He’s completing 56.1 percent of his passes, and he’s been at 50 percent or lower in four of his seven games. Dropped passes absolutely have been an issue, including one INT that went off the hands of Charone Peake last week. But the Jets went 2-for-13 on third down against the Vikings and followed up a long opening-drive TD with a net of 4 yards on their next 10 possessions.
Darnold’s sacks (16) and fumbles (three) have not been awful at all, but they’re areas that bear watching heading into the next two games against the playmaking defenses of the Bears and Dolphins, who rank second and fifth, respectively, in the NFL in takeaways. One of the knocks against Darnold coming out was his small hands and penchant for fumbling at USC. He put the ball on the ground 12 times last season, and the number was 21 over his two seasons.
Above all that, however, Darnold has blown some Jets folks away with his poise, his leadership and his ability to compartmentalize — all the traits that made him a no-brainer choice for the Jets at No. 3 overall this past spring — after just turning 21 years old in June.
“You wouldn’t believe his temperament,” one Jets team source told us on Monday. “We’ve given him things to work on, and he always comes back doing what I call ‘extra credit.’ Not to show off, but to set a tone. Sam acts like a veteran who has been around. He was raised right, coached right and we’re lucky to have him.
“I’ve never been with the [Giants], but I’ve heard some of those guys talk about Eli [Manning] being that way when he was a rookie and his first few seasons. Some quarterbacks, even when they’re really young, are just wired that certain special way.
“[Darnold is] not too different after wins or losses. That’s a good thing.”
Similar to the rebuild the Bears underwent when GM Ryan Pace took over, the Jets’ locker room needed some cleaning up when GM Mike Maccagnan took over.
“There were too many poor-me guys, and too many finger pointers,” the team source said. “We had to find some leaders and winners. That was the emphasis, really the past two seasons now. You can see it in our drafts and you can see it in the veterans we added.”
In 2017, they drafted back-to-back safeties in Rounds 1 and 2 with Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye, raising eyebrows around the league for that unusual tact. But both have emerged as team tone setters and good players when healthy. They joined Leonard Williams and Darron Lee, the team’s top picks in 2015 and 2016, as the core of a defense that’s holding its own, along with veteran additions such as Avery Williamson, Trumaine Johnson, Steve McClendon and Morris Claiborne.
Now with Lee, Adams, McClendon and Darnold, the Jets have a nice leadership corps — and a quality mix of young and old.
“The young guys are soaking up what the [veterans] and coaches are preaching,” said the source. “The vets are feeding off the young guys. On some teams, a Jamal Adams-aged player might get up and try to give a speech, and guys will roll their eyes.
“But not here. [Adams] is one of those guys. Sam Darnold is as respected as anyone else in the locker room. This is absolutely a better work environment than even last year, when things broke down internally and we just couldn’t compete on a weekly basis.”
The Jets are a pretty tight-lipped organization, all things considered, which is why our source insisted on anonymity. That’s how Maccagnan wants it. But they’re also privately happy to sing the praises of what they’ve started to build with an eye on being big players in the 2019 offseason. This has all been part of Maccagnan’s long-term vision: build up the guts of the team, find the right quarterback and then add the shiny pieces last.
That last part likely will come in March and April, especially on offense. For now, the team is stuck with a few spare parts patching things together around Darnold. The offensive line remains a few pieces shy of being a good unit. The run game is hindered by Bilal Powell battling a neck injury, Isaiah Crowell playing through a painful foot injury and Trenton Cannon too raw to contribute readily.
They’re also hurting at receiver, with Darnold’s favorite target, Quincy Enunwa, out for this game and perhaps a few more with a high-ankle sprain. Robby Anderson (hamstring) has been a weekly injury-report visitor, and the team just cut Terrelle Pryor unexpectedly following a groin tear. (Ex-Titans WR Rishard Matthews is reportedly signing with the Jets to take Pryor's spot.) Young TE Chris Herndon has been a pleasant surprise, but Darnold isn’t exactly teeming with reliable pass-catching options.
When Darnold has had to attempt more than 30 passes, the Jets have lost all four of those games. With a better run game, as well as more reliable receivers, Darnold can be effective. Is that suddenly coming in Week 8? Probably not. But it’s hard to argue that he hasn’t given the Jets a steadying quality for such a young QB and tangible hope for years to come.