CLEVELAND – One of the factors Todd Bowles considered in his deliberations about whether Sam Darnold was ready to be his starter right away was the Jets’ daunting early-season schedule. With three games in 11 days, including two prime-time matchups, was it wise to go with a rookie from the get-go?
It was no small factor in how to proceed, especially because Bowles had two viable options in Josh McCown and Teddy Bridgewater.
Darnold himself wound up addressing all concerns by performing so admirably during training camp and preseason that Bowles really didn’t have much of a decision to make after all. It was a no-brainer to start Darnold, who checked all the boxes for what the coach needed.
And now that Darnold is two-thirds of the way through the 11-day gantlet, he actually can benefit from the challenges associated with such an arduous start. Especially now that he is working on a second short week to prepare for a game.
“It’s just another challenge for this team and we’re going to take it head on,” said Darnold, who looks to bounce back after a mediocre performance in a 20-12 loss to the Dolphins. “Move on as fast as possible because it’s a short turnaround.”
Not that Darnold is about to face a team that has instilled fear in the hearts of its opponents in recent years. The Browns are 1-32-1 in the Hue Jackson era. A dreadful run, to be sure, but the Browns have looked capable in many spots during the first two weeks, playing a 21-21 tie with the defending AFC North champion Steelers at home in Week 1 and a 21-18 loss to the Saints in New Orleans.
Those two results, combined with the Jets’ lackluster performance in Week 2 – which followed a 48-17 tour de force over the Lions – actually prompted oddsmakers to install the Browns as three-point favorites over the Jets.
So it will be no small task for Darnold to deal with hyper-aggressive defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who loves to call blitzes, especially against young quarterbacks. Expect Williams to dial up plenty of schemes to pressure and confuse Darnold.
“They’re very sound in what they do,” Darnold said. “Their defensive backs are very sound in their coverage and they play man pretty well. It’s going to be a great challenge for us, and we’re looking forward to it.”
Had things turned out differently last spring, it might have been Darnold wearing a Browns uniform for this one. There was a time early in the draft process that it appeared a fait accompli Darnold would be the No. 1 overall pick, but general manager John Dorsey eventually became enamored with Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield and selected him at the top spot.
Unlike the Jets, Dorsey and Jackson opted for a more conservative approach in developing Mayfield and are going with former Bills starter Tyrod Taylor. Darnold vs. Mayfield will have to wait for another day.
Both approaches have merit, but there’s no question the Jets made the right call installing Darnold as the Week 1 starter. Things never seemed too big for him – not practice, not the preseason games and not the leadership requirements every starter must show. He did a terrific job in recovering from an interception return for a touchdown on his first NFL play, and the Jets played as complete a game as any under Bowles.
But as Sunday’s clunker against the Dolphins showed, this will be a work in progress with plenty of highs and lows. Darnold simply hopes to keep the lows to a minimum. "I'm just going to continue to try and play as consistent as possible, find completions when I can and take shots when I can,” he said.
Three games in 11 days, and then some rest. It’s as good a way to start as any.