If the Jets are going to have the kind of season a lot of people expect — namely a season in which they make a serious push at a playoff spot — then there will be moments like this.
There will be lousy field position and lousy blocking and too many hits to Sam Darnold and too many missed assignments and too much miscommunication. Which is exactly what the Jets confronted through much of the first half in Saturday night’s preseason dress rehearsal against the Saints.
The starters will take off Thursday’s preseason finale against the Eagles at MetLife Stadium, so this was the last chance for the first-team offense — minus Le’Veon Bell, who will be held out until the games count — to get in some meaningful action.
It did not go well for a good portion of that time.
Darnold had been spot on at the beginning of his previous two games, looking sharp in reading coverages and delivering his passes and appearing like a quarterback who was ready to take the next step in his development. Darnold enjoyed a productive offseason and looked very good in training camp, and there was a clear carry-over in his appearances against the Giants and then the Falcons.
But Darnold and the offense looked out of sorts through much of their playing time against the Saints in the first half of Saturday night’s game. Darnold was hit far too frequently — the result of inadequate protection — and no Bell in the backfield translated to little production from Ty Montgomery and Bilal Powell.
And then . . .
Patience and perseverance through those difficult early drives was rewarded with some terrific play on their final drive of the night. Darnold found Robby Anderson down the left side for a 41-yard gain to the Saints’ 19, and Darnold later feathered a perfect pass to Montgomery in the left corner of the end zone for a two-yard touchdown.
That was all coach Adam Gase needed to see from his first-team offense and his quarterback. And we won’t see most of them until the Jets host the Bills in the regular season opener Sept. 8.
But it was a good teaching moment for the regular season, because there are sure to be similar struggles ahead. Just as there are for every team — even championships teams — things don’t always go smoothly. It’s what you to do grind through those moments that ultimately determines how good you are.
In this league, you have to learn to win ugly.
The Jets should feel good about where they are going into the season, having upgraded the roster with Bell, Montgomery, linebacker C.J. Mosley and slot receiver Jamison Crowder. But there are some problem areas, including a lack of depth at cornerback and linebacker. Perhaps the most concerning area, however, is the offensive line.
And the problems showed against the Saints.
With guards Kelechi Osemele (pectoral muscle strain) and Brian Winters (shoulder) still out, and with Ryan Kalil a late scratch after indicating earlier in the week he was ready to play, there is plenty of uncertainty in a critical area.
If the Jets’ offense is to succeed this season, it will take more than just Darnold. It will take reliable protection and solid run blocking. And if the offensive line issues bleed into the season, then there should be legitimate concern.
For now, general manager Joe Douglas, himself a former college lineman, is comfortable with what he has.
“We feel good about where we are depth-wise with this offensive line, and it’s always going to be a point of emphasis,” Douglas said before Saturday’s game. “They’ll be able to get work done in practice. We feel good about that.”
Good offensive play often goes unnoticed, because the skill players are able to produce thanks in large part to effective blocking. But poor execution up front leads to breakdowns that mean the difference between a good offense and a poor one.
And no amount of improvement Darnold has made will make a difference if he isn’t upright long enough to make his throws.
It showed against the Saints until the line got it together on the Jets’ final drive. And it will show when the lights come on in the regular season if the Jets can’t grind through the ugliness and overcome their issues up front.