Given how badly Sam Darnold has been hit over the last several weeks, especially during Sunday’s brutal showing in a 13-6 debacle against the Dolphins, maybe it’s not the worst thing that the Jets’ rookie quarterback is almost certain to take a seat for this week’s game against the Bills.
The preference, of course, would be to let Darnold play his way through his rookie season in hopes of coming out the other end a more capable quarterback. But he can’t go because of a foot injury he suffered against the Dolphins – most likely on an early fourth-quarter sack, one of four takedowns against Miami’s swarming defense. So he’ll get a week off – and perhaps longer – while 39-year-old Josh McCown comes on in relief.
It has been a slog for Darnold these last three weeks, having thrown just two touchdown passes and seven interceptions in the Jets’ three-game losing streak. He has looked lost, he looks as if he has regressed after some promising early-season play, and he is now getting physically hammered. Part of the problem is a leaky offensive line that hasn’t protected well enough.
But part of it is his own fault. Darnold is struggling to stay afloat as he tries to process what defenses are doing to limit his effectiveness. Against the Dolphins, he couldn’t solve Miami’s two-deep zone, a conservative coverage designed to limit the long pass. Darnold looked hesitant on his reads, didn’t react quickly enough to what was happening around him, and too often hesitated long enough for the protection to break down.
At 3-6, there was no reason to bench Darnold, even with all his struggles. The idea here is to give him maximum exposure to let him figure things out on his own, the way almost every other highly drafted quarterback in recent years has done. The long-term benefit of those early struggles is obvious; Carson Wentz, Jared Goff, Marcus Mariota and others have become capable players after a difficult initiation.
Early struggles are no guarantee, of course, of eventual success. Mark Sanchez went to two AFC Championship Games his first two years, but mostly because he had a terrific defense and strong running game to help him. He regressed from there and is now out of the league. Jameis Winston, another first-year starter, now finds himself on the bench behind former Jet Ryan Fitzpatrick.
But Darnold had shown enough promise in training camp and the first six games – despite some ups and downs along the way – to make his coaches feel good about where he was headed. But Darnold may have hit the rookie wall in recent weeks, and his play has suffered in the process. It’s neither unusual nor cause for immediate alarm, because it happens with almost every rookie starter.
With no clear indication that the foot injury is serious enough to the point of requiring season-ending surgery, Darnold ought to be back within a few weeks. And when he is healthy enough to play again, he should play, regardless of how well McCown does in his absence. This season has been all about Darnold from the start, and it needs to end that way, too.
In the meantime, he’ll take this latest setback and gain something from the experience.
“Obviously, I want to be out there with the guys. I want to go out there and play,” he said. “Hopefully if I'm able to go out there and play Sunday, I will. If not, I'm just going to treat it as another learning experience. When adversity hits, it's up to me on how to respond. That’s all I need to worry about.”
If we’ve learned anything about Darnold so far, it’s that he is accountable and is the first to point to his mistakes when they’re hurting his team. What we don’t know is how he’ll come out of what turned into a disturbing slump before being unable to play because of injury.
He’s hoping for the best, but as Jets fans know all too painfully well, these things don’t always turn out that way.