This has gone far better than anyone could have expected — Josh McCown included.
At 38 years old, playing in his 15th NFL season for his eighth different team, he has never been better. He’s already produced career highs for passing yards (2,880), touchdown passes (18) and rushing touchdowns (five), and he earned AFC offensive player of the week honors this past week after passing for 331 yards and a touchdown and running for two touchdowns against the Chiefs.
McCown joined Jim Thorpe — yes, that Jim Thorpe — and Doug Flutie as the only players 38 or older to run for two TDs in a game. He also became the oldest player to have two rushing TDs in a game since Flutie did it for the Chargers in 2003 at 41.
McCown is having the time of his life.
Well, sort of.
“I’m having a lot of fun, and you want to keep chasing it, seeing how much better you can play,” McCown told Newsday.
But there is a hint of loneliness from the quarterback as he leads the Jets (5-7) in a season that still features an outside chance of making the playoffs. Though he is the first to admit that he absolutely loves playing the game — and doing it better than he has ever done it — there are conflicting emotions as he continues to pursue his NFL dreams.
“It stinks,” he said when I asked how hard it is to be away from his family. “I’ll miss a set of basketball games this weekend. Missed all of [youth] football this season. When the kids are younger, it’s different. Typically, most [players’] kids at this point aren’t teenagers. I’ve got one in college, an eighth-grader, a seventh-grader and a fifth-grader.”
It is a delicate and difficult balance that McCown tries to strike. On the one hand, he has taken advantage of a rare opportunity to gain a starting job at an age when most players are either retired or getting ready to do so. On the other hand, he’s missing out on family time that he’ll never get back.
“The thing is, they enjoy that I’m playing,” said McCown, whose wife and children fly in for most home games. “But I’m like, I want to come watch you guys.”
Trying to manage football and fatherhood isn’t easy. Phone calls and FaceTime are all well and good, but that’s no replacement for being at home.
“I don’t want to come off as poor, poor me, because we choose to live this way,” McCown said. “Hey, service people, other people live like this.”
But with increased talk that the Jets hope McCown can return next season — even if they draft a highly rated quarterback — McCown said family will be a major factor in whether he continues playing.
“It’s a factor in the decision because of the kids’ age,” he said. “If I only played one or two more years, I don’t want to move them in the middle of high school. Just in a vacuum, I would love to keep going until I can’t. But I have a family that I bring into consideration as this process goes.”
McCown has discovered that the best way to deal with his conflicted emotions is to concentrate on the here-and-now.
“For me, the focus is Denver right now,” he said of Sunday’s game against the Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. “The thing I’ve learned through this process is that I’m better when I just focus on being right here, right now. Just handle this week, and handle the next week and we’ll decide when the time comes. It’ll be here soon enough, and we’ll sit down and figure it out.”
What complicates matters even more: The better McCown plays, the more enticing it is to continue playing — but at what price?
If the father in McCown takes pause about where his future lies, the quarterback in him has never been better. Even at an age when many other quarterbacks have hit the wall — Steve Young, Joe Montana, Phil Simms and Dan Marino all retired at age 38 — McCown continues to find ways to improve.
That’s the thing with quarterbacks. The only inhibiting factor with age is physical degradation. But because the position is so cerebral, the longer a quarterback plays, the better he can read defenses and manage the game.
“As long as you can physically do it, mentally your recollection should be there to allow you to play at an even higher level,” he said. “You’re constantly tweaking your process. Look at what Tom Brady has been able to do at age 40. He’s still playing at a high level. The longer you play, the more you have a chance to see a [defensive] look that you’ve seen before that you may execute better the second time around. You see things better. The longer you play, the bigger the catalog of plays that you’ve experienced that you have to draw from.”
McCown is seeing the game better than ever, and he’s a major reason the Jets have done far better than most had expected coming into the season. No one could have foreseen that they’d be close to a playoff berth — and it’s a long shot that they’ll get that far — but McCown’s performance and leadership have been critical to the establishment of a new culture for a team that required a major offseason overhaul. That they’re still in the postseason hunt with a month to go is a testament to his fine work.
As for what comes next, McCown simply isn’t sure.
The choice between football and family won’t be an easy one.