Sam Darnold said Tuesday he’s excited "about going out there and playing ball with my teammates" and that he wants to be back soon. But for the Jets’ 23-year-old quarterback, who missed Monday night’s game against the Patriots after aggravating his shoulder injury the previous week, it’s not as simple as it appears.
In fact, it’s complicated. Very complicated.
While Darnold is anxious to play, even in the face of an 0-9 record and all hope of a playoff run having been extinguished weeks ago, he needs to tread very carefully here. And he wisely is leaving himself some wiggle room about his availability when the Jets return from a bye week to face the Chargers in Los Angeles on Nov. 22.
"Trying to get on the field as quickly as possible," he said, "but at the same time being smart about it."
Darnold returned to practice last week, and he and coach Adam Gase seemed optimistic early on that he could play. But Darnold, who initially suffered a sprained A/C joint in his throwing shoulder against the Broncos on Oct. 1, felt increasingly uncomfortable as the week progressed. By Saturday, Gase had downgraded him to "doubtful," and Darnold did not dress for Monday’s game. He was replaced by Joe Flacco, who had three touchdown passes but threw a critical fourth-quarter interception.
Gase seemed more hopeful that Darnold, with an extra week of treatment and rehab, could return.
"He’s doing everything he can to make himself available," Gase said. "I like where his mind frame is and how he’s approaching everything … He knows how it needs to feel."
And that’s where it gets dicey, because Darnold must think not only of the short-term goal of getting back on the field, but also his long-term career to make sure he preserves his most important asset moving forward: his arm. With uncertainty clouding his future and the Jets potentially moving on from Darnold next year – especially if they get the first overall pick and decide they can’t pass up the chance to take Clemson's Trevor Lawrence – Darnold needs to think about himself here.
And that’s not easy, because it’s in his DNA to want to play. But he simply can’t take unnecessary risks in getting back before he’s fully healed and risking further injury. Potentially season-ending injury that would require surgery.
Flacco offered some timely words of wisdom to his younger teammate, words Darnold needs to take seriously as he prepares to potentially return to the lineup.
"He’s a young kid that has a lot of talent and has a lot [of years] ahead of him, so he definitely has to be smart about this," said the 35-year-old Flacco, who this year returned from a neck injury that ended his 2019 season in Denver after eight games. Flacco had surgery in April. "[Darnold must] make sure he makes the right decision in terms of staying patient and not feeling like he’s got to be itching to get back out there."
Sometimes football players are their own worst enemies in this situation.
"The problem with us as football players, you always want to get back out there, and you always want to run your team and lead your guys," Flacco said. "You’re dealing with that battle. [But] you need to listen to people from the outside, and hopefully he listens to everybody and stays as patient as he has to on this one."
Darnold played it smart last week, trusting his instinct that he wasn’t ready to come back.
"It just didn’t feel right during the week of practice," he said. "It was a hard decision [not to play], but I went with my gut on it."
He needs to do the same this time. And if his gut tells him he’s not ready to come back, then he must wait it out. There is nothing to be gained by coming back for meaningless regular-season games, especially with the risk of more serious injury that might impact his future beyond this season. And potentially beyond his time with the Jets.
Like all football players, Darnold has been taught to take one for the team.
In this case, he needs to think about himself.