It’s as if the Giants’ and Jets’ seasons are in a state of suspended animation.
The Jets are 3-6 and going nowhere as they prepare to host the Bills. They will do so with 39-year-old quarterback Josh McCown, who will be sent back to the bench once rookie Sam Darnold recovers from a foot injury he suffered in last week’s 13-6 loss in Miami.
At 1-7, the Giants are even more disappointing as they ready for Monday night’s game against 2-7 San Francisco, which lost all hope once Jimmy Garoppolo went down with a knee injury but at least has the Nick Mullens story to appreciate. The Giants again will send out Eli Manning, but the quarterback — who has never missed a game because of injury — might be making one of his last appearances for the only NFL team he’s ever known.
Jets coach Todd Bowles has made it clear that Darnold will be his starter once he’s healthy again. It’s absolutely the correct call, even if it means more defeats and yet another loss — of Bowles’ job.
Meanwhile, Giants coach Pat Shurmur hasn’t offered any assurances to Manning, an indication that it may not be long before the team gets a look at either rookie Kyle Lauletta or journeyman Alex Tanney as a potential solution going into next season.
“Sam is our quarterback,” Bowles said this week when asked if good performances by McCown would make him consider keeping last year’s starter in the lineup when Darnold is ready to return. “[Darnold] is our starter and he won the job. I feel comfortable with him in there, and I feel comfortable with Josh in there.”
There’s an adage in the NFL that you don’t lose your job because of injury, and Bowles is sticking to that plan. There are exceptions, of course. When Drew Bledsoe returned from an injury at the hands of Jets linebacker Mo Lewis, who slammed into Bledsoe’s chest in a Week 2 game in 2001, Bill Belichick correctly kept Tom Brady in the lineup. But Darnold clearly is the Jets’ future and McCown, while serving as a terrific mentor for the rookie, does not figure into the team’s long-term plans.
Bowles is smart to not open the door to speculation that Darnold might not return as the starter. The rookie must find his way out of the problems that have befallen him in recent weeks; he has thrown two touchdown passes and seven interceptions during the team’s three-game losing streak. After a 1-3 start, he previously showed improvement in getting back to 3-3, but he has shown unmistakable signs of regression during the current downturn.
It certainly didn’t help that his offensive line hasn’t provided consistent protection or solid run blocking. Darnold, however, admits he was at fault for many of the problems, and he just didn’t have the authoritative demeanor he had in his better games this season. That happens when you’re still adapting to the NFL game after just a year and a half as a college starter, and Darnold looked overwhelmed at times.
While there surely are those who will suggest Darnold is on the way to becoming a bust, it’s preposterous to draw that conclusion for a 21-year-old quarterback who has played nine NFL games. This is a work in progress, and we won’t get a true assessment of Darnold’s ability until at least a year or two from now. Maybe the time off will allow him to take a deep breath and help hin figure things out from a mental standpoint, especially as he consults with McCown now that the latter is in the lineup.
McCown is as close to a player-coach as there is in the NFL, and his advice to Darnold already has been invaluable. It will stay that way, even with Darnold on the sideline. There still is much to be learned for the rookie, and he’ll become better equipped as he observes the process from a different vantage point.
It doesn’t guarantee success once he returns, but seeing different situations and how McCown handles them no doubt will help Darnold down the road.
The Giants are in a far more challenging position now that Manning is nearing the end of his run with the team. After passing up a chance to draft a quarterback with the second overall pick last spring, they’ve got only Lauletta, a fourth-round pick out of Richmond, and Tanney, a 30-year-old with zero NFL starts. Neither is as good as Manning, but with the Giants effectively out of the race in an awful NFC East halfway through their season, Shurmur no doubt will want to see what he has in one or both of his other quarterbacks.
The situation is reminiscent of last year, when Ben McAdoo made the unpopular decision to go with Geno Smith in a late-season game against the Raiders. McAdoo botched the situation, leading to a public relations fallout that ended with his ouster the day after Smith lost to Oakland.
Had McAdoo decided to get a look at rookie Davis Webb, it would have made more sense. But there was no need to get a look at Smith because there already had been plenty of looks at him during his ill-fated days with the Jets.
Shurmur’s unwillingness to declare that Manning will be his starter beyond Monday’s game suggests he is ready to look at either or both of his younger quarterbacks. And who knows? Had Lauletta not been arrested nearly two weeks ago on several traffic-related charges, perhaps he’d be getting the start against the 49ers.
Whatever the case, a team in clear rebuild mode already is looking to next season, and Manning almost certainly is not a part of that future. It remains to be seen whether the Giants will look to the draft for Manning’s heir apparent or whether they’ll go after a veteran such as Teddy Bridgewater, who is playing on a one-year deal with the Saints after being traded from the Jets. It’s possible the Raiders will part with Derek Carr next year, particularly if they are in position to draft Oregon’s Justin Herbert.
It’s still way too soon to know what the Giants will do, but it isn’t too soon to know that the greatest quarterback in franchise history is playing out his final days with them.
Manning’s next game might be his last in a Giants uniform.