At 38 years old, Josh McCown knows that when it comes to his NFL career, he’s living on borrowed time.
He appreciates every single day — sometimes every minute — that he maintains his grip on the job of Jets starting quarterback. But 15 years into an NFL career that has lasted longer than even he ever imagined, he understands that this is not an open-ended deal.
Especially if the misfortune he has faced the last two weeks continues.
Though Jets coach Todd Bowles has offered not even a hint of wavering about keeping McCown as his starter, the quarterback realizes he can’t keep throwing game-changing interceptions the way he did the last two weeks.
“It’s still not where I want it to be with this group, but I think we’re getting there,” McCown told me this past week. “We’re getting there. We’ve done some good things, but it’s not quite where I want to be at. I expect a lot of myself, and I feel like we can definitely improve.”
McCown is coming off a demoralizing 31-28 loss to the Dolphins last week, a game that included some of his most impressive play in years. With three touchdown passes and another rushing touchdown in the first three quarters, he had the Jets in position to bounce back from a 24-17 loss to the Patriots the week before.
McCown was mostly good in that game, too, except for a critical second-half interception that the Patriots converted into a touchdown. He also had a would-be touchdown pass taken off the board after a controversial replay review overturned tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins’ TD catch.
McCown was positively morose after the Dolphins game. He pinned the loss on himself after floating a pass in the left flat that was picked off and set up the game-deciding field goal in the final minute. He repeated the line “it makes you sick” several times in his postgame remarks and continued to beat himself up emotionally the next day when he studied the play on video.
But like any quarterback who has played this long, McCown has learned to compartmentalize his disappointment, and by Wednesday, he was cracking jokes in the locker room with teammates. He even engaged in some playfulness before his weekly meeting with reporters. McCown pretended he had a microphone in his hand and shouted out: “Josh McCown to the podium. Josh McCown to the podium.” He jokingly suggested that public relations director Bruce Speight would not be happy with McCown messing with media protocol.
So yes, he had flushed Sunday’s game and had moved on to this week’s Falcons game with the kind of enthusiasm and energy his teammates have come to expect from the unquestioned leader of the locker room. There’s no crying in football, and there’s no sulking, either. One look at the game video of the defending NFC champion Falcons — even if they’re scuffling at 3-3 after three straight losses — is proof enough to McCown that he has no choice but to move on.
“They’re fast. They’re really fast, and they know exactly what they’re doing,” McCown said. “The speed of their defense, we have to try and match that.”
He put his interceptions issue to rest this way: “Ultimately, especially coming out of this week, I think any time anybody turns it over, as a quarterback, you don’t want to have interceptions. Two or three of those I feel like there’s nothing I can do about it, a receiver falls down, things like that happen . . . I expect it to be better the rest of the season.”
It has to be, or McCown will be one-and-done as the Jets move on with a roster filled with mostly younger players. There’s a chance he won’t be the starter next year, anyway, and there are no contractual assurances beyond his one-year, $6-million deal. But even if the Jets wind up drafting a quarterback next spring, McCown still can factor into the team’s plans if he can prove to be a reliable starter the rest of the way in 2017.
It therefore is a critical stretch for him, and the next several days will offer a window into whether the Jets can count on him as something more than just a stopgap until they find a more permanent solution. After Sunday’s game against the Falcons, the Jets will host the Bills on Thursday night at MetLife Stadium.
McCown knows the choice to play is not his; all he can do is convince Bowles he deserves to keep his job.
“[Bowles] is going to make a decision that’s best for the team,” McCown said. “I just go out and play, so that’s the main thing. If they ever have to make the decision they feel it’s time to play another guy, then that’s their choice. I don’t look over my shoulder. I just go play.”
Bowles has shown zero inclination to turn to backups Bryce Petty or Christian Hackenberg, and as long as the Jets are in the playoff equation, that almost certainly won’t change. Bowles gave Hackenberg every opportunity to win the starting job in the preseason, and even improved play from Petty wasn’t enough to convince the coach to deviate from his decision to go with McCown.
For Bowles, this season wasn’t about finding out about Hackenberg or Petty, it was about finding as many wins as possible with the best quarterback on his roster. And that clearly has been McCown, warts and all.
Even with the interceptions, he has performed above expectations. He already has won more games this year than the previous three seasons combined, when he had a combined 2-20 record for the Bucs and Browns. He has thrown for 1,583 yards, with 10 touchdown passes and seven interceptions, and has a .692 completion percentage (second in the NFL to Alex Smith). His 91.5 rating ranks 13th.
“I have the utmost confidence in him,” Jets offensive coordinator John Morton said. “He’s playing really good ball. He knows that we have to make sure we protect the ball and be smart. It just so happens it happened at critical times, but we can’t be doing that. Other than that, he’s been playing really good ball, and he’s helped us win some ballgames.”
McCown wants to win a bunch more, and he’ll have to do just that to remain the starter. He knows that time isn’t on his side, but he also knows he wants to keep this dream alive as long as possible.