There are two ways to look at the progress Sam Darnold has shown since his return last week from a foot injury that kept him out the previous month.
The first is the statistical breakdown, which goes as follows: In the three games before the injury, Darnold had two touchdown passes, seven interceptions, a completion percentage of .470 and a 43.3 rating. In the two games since he came back, he has three touchdown throws, one interception, a .645 completion percentage and a 93.7 rating.
The second way to look at it is much less complicated, if a less empirical assessment: It’s what you see.
Darnold still is far from a finished product as he nears the end of his first season, but it is clear that the light is starting to come on and that he is starting to figure things out much more easily than when he was drowning in confusion before the injury.
Darnold’s mentor sees it clear as day.
“You have to play a little bit to know what to watch for,” said backup quarterback Josh McCown after a 29-22 loss to the Texans in which Darnold had one of his best overall performances, even if it didn’t result in a victory.
“You saw it last week [in a fourth-quarter comeback win over the Bills]. You saw it again this week. He’s processing better in the pocket, and the playmaking ability we saw on tape at USC is coming to life.”
Darnold lamented his inability to earn a second straight comeback victory after failing to solve Houston’s defense on his final two drives. Yes, in a bottom-line league in which there are no moral victories, he didn’t do enough at the end. But there was more convincing evidence that a quarterback who is only 21 appears to have a bright future.
McCown, who is 39 and has seen dozens of quarterbacks come and go throughout his NFL journey, is convinced of it. His eyes tell him it’s true.
“Playing fast in the pocket makes a defense defend the whole field,” he said. “When you do that, you dictate the tempo, and when the opportunity presents itself to make plays, it’s there.”
For lack of a better explanation, Darnold simply looks better, more comfortable and more authoritative with his decisions. He scrambled out of danger against a ferocious Texans pass rush featuring the great J.J. Watt, former No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney and first-round linebacker Whitney Mercilus. He rushed for 35 yards on six carries. But more than his running ability, he used his feet to elude the pass rush and find his receivers after they adjusted their routes.
The best example was at the end of a nine-play, 83-yard drive late in the second quarter. On first-and-goal from Houston’s 5-yard line, Darnold was under a heavy rush and scrambled to avoid the sack. He looked as if he would try and make a dash toward the end zone, but with defenders closing in, he saw receiver Robby Anderson get open in the middle of the end zone. Darnold reacted instinctively and fired a perfect pass for the Jets’ first touchdown.
He hit receiver Andre Roberts with a perfectly thrown 13-yard pass in the left corner of the end zone to get the Jets to within 16-15, capping an eight-play, 60-yard drive. And he gave the Jets their only lead by directing a 15-play, 73-yard drive to make it 22-19 with 5:00 left. An upset of the surging Texans, who had won nine of 10 coming in, seemed within reach.
But the Jets’ defense surrendered a touchdown on Houston’s next drive and the Texans had a 26-22 lead. And Darnold failed to close the gap on his remaining two possessions, although it wasn’t entirely his fault. Watt broke through for a critical sack on the first series and Clowney sacked him on the next — and final — comeback attempt.
In the end, Darnold was upset. “To go out there against a good Texans team, it would have been awesome to be able to get that win,” he said. “Just came up short. Sometimes you’re going to go out there and play well and win and sometimes you’re going to play well and lose. But it comes down to wins and losses. We want to get out there and win again. That’s the whole point of playing.”
Darnold did acknowledge that he feels more comfortable running the offense, if for no other reason than he has gained valuable experience as the season has progressed.
“I feel like our whole offense is starting to click a lot better,” he said. “It still [stinks] to lose a game, but I think our offense is starting to find a bit of a rhythm.”
With hope of a playoff run extinguished weeks ago, this season is all about developing Darnold. His progress will chart a course for a future that the Jets hope will include the championship that has eluded them since Joe Namath scored one of the biggest upsets in NFL history after the 1968 season.
A half-century later, Darnold is at least providing some hope that maybe, just maybe, they have a quarterback capable of winning another.
Even if it might take another few years.