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SportsColumnistsBob Glauber

Can the Jets find their own Justin Herbert?

Justin Herbert #10 of the Los Angeles Chargers

Justin Herbert #10 of the Los Angeles Chargers throws a pass during the first half against the Jets at SoFi Stadium on November 22, 2020 in Inglewood, California. Credit: Getty Images/Kevork Djansezian

Hope is hard to come by for Jets fans as they watch their team sink deeper into the abyss. At 0-10, there is nothing left to salvage this season, and truth be told, it’s in the team’s long-term best interests to become the third 0-16 team in NFL history.

But there was something to latch on to in Sunday’s 34-28 loss to the Chargers at SoFi Stadium, even if hope in this case rested in a player from the opposing team.

Justin Herbert has done for the Chargers what some other rookie quarterback might do for the 2021 Jets.

With the Jets careening toward the first overall pick, they could have their choice of next year’s would-be star passers. Trevor Lawrence of Clemson? Justin Fields of Ohio State? Mac Jones of Alabama?

Even if the Jets somehow win a game and allow the 1-9 Jaguars to get the top pick, it won’t necessarily be time to despair.

After all, Herbert was the third quarterback taken in 2020 — the sixth pick overall — behind Joe Burrow (No. 1 to the Bengals) and Tua Tagovailoa (No. 5 to the Dolphins). And he might end up being the best one of all.

Herbert has made a seamless transition to the NFL after a spectacular career at Oregon. After replacing injured starter Tyrod Taylor, he has looked like a seasoned pro, and he was a surgeon against the Jets’ overmatched secondary.

Herbert was 37-for-49 for 366 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions to help the Chargers break a three-game losing streak. He has 22 touchdown passes and only six interceptions, and his five games with at least three touchdown passes are the most by a rookie in NFL history.

Jets general manager Joe Douglas has a major decision in the coming months, and it almost certainly will have a major impact on the direction of the team for years to come.

He theoretically can continue with Sam Darnold, who once was considered the answer to the team’s quarterback situation. But keeping Darnold most likely would require a heavy financial investment in a new contract. And with Darnold (who remains out while recovering from a shoulder injury he initially suffered Oct. 1) having shown signs of regression in the time he has played this season, Douglas might be more interested in moving on with someone else.

Unless Douglas is fully convinced that Darnold can be a big-time quarterback, pairing a new head coach (after Adam Gase’s inevitable ouster) with a new quarterback might be the right idea. Especially considering how bright the futures of Lawrence, Fields and Jones look.

Then again, Darnold looked like the real deal, but reality has exposed the imperfections that skeptics warned about going into the draft. His turnover problem at USC hasn’t been solved at the NFL level, although there are times when it’s not a fair fight for the 23-year-old quarterback, given the shortcomings of the roster around him.

But this is not a very patient league, and with Douglas inheriting both Gase and Darnold, he no doubt will be tempted to start anew at the two most important positions in any NFL organization.

Watching Herbert rip apart the Jets may have reinforced that notion. He staked the Chargers to a 24-6 first-half lead. His favorite target was Keenan Allen, who had a monster game with 16 catches for 145 yards and a touchdown. Herbert also found wide receiver Mike Williams and tight end Hunter Henry for touchdowns, and the Chargers staved off a second-half comeback to escape with the win and keep their flickering playoff hopes alive.

Joe Flacco threw two touchdown passes of his own, although his afternoon was spoiled by a pick-6. And though Flacco won’t be part of the Jets’ long-term solution at quarterback, his work with rookie Denzel Mims offered another glimmer of optimism about the future.

Mims, who had three catches for 71 yards and drew two long pass-interference penalties, has flashed elite skills since recovering from hamstring injuries that shut him down for almost the entirety of training camp and the first six games. If Douglas can come up with a big-armed quarterback to pair with Mims, he might have a productive combination for years to come.

There are six more weeks of heartbreak ahead for these Jets, who may replace the 1-15 team from 1996 as the worst team in franchise history.

But if they can figure out the quarterback situation, if they can get their own version of Herbert, maybe there can be some hope.

New York Sports