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SportsColumnistsBob Glauber

Cautiously, Sam Darnold and the Jets face a wide-open AFC East

Sam Darnold of the Jets throws a pass

Sam Darnold of the Jets throws a pass during the game against the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium on Dec. 1, 2019. Credit: Getty Images/Andy Lyons

Finally, after two decades of utter domination in the AFC East that has produced heartbreak for everyone else in the division, Tom Brady is gone. The most accomplished quarterback in NFL history has taken his talents to Tampa, leaving the division as wide open as it has been at any time since Brady first arrived in New England 20 years ago.

So what do you say, Sam Darnold? Can this finally be the Year of the Jets now that Brady  can no longer haunt the franchise? Will this at long last be time to slay the dragon that has tortured this franchise so painfully and so thoroughly for so many years?

The Jets’ third-year quarterback has what should be his best chance to lead his team to a divisional championship now that Brady’s time in New England is over. With a remade offensive line that has been upgraded significantly by general manager Joe Douglas and an influx of talent that now has veteran running back and exceptional locker room leader Frank Gore aboard, Darnold is in position to put his own stamp of excellence on the AFC East.

Even if he won’t make that pronouncement himself.

“With a great player like Tom Brady leaving, [it] is a big deal. It’s headlines,” Darnold said Tuesday on a conference call in his first public remarks this offseason.

But Darnold declined to say that Brady’s departure has opened the door to opportunity . . . even though it most certainly has.

“For us, every single game in the NFL is a tough one, and I think any player can attest to that,” he said. “So we’re not going to take anyone more or less lightly just because — even though one of the greatest players, if not the greatest player of all time, left the organization. We’re not going to take them any more lightly.”

Darnold’s caution certainly is understandable, if for no other reason that Bill Belichick remains in charge in New England. The greatest coach of all time  no doubt will be challenged himself by dealing with life after Brady and incorporating presumptive starter Jarrett Stidham into the offense. Brady or no Brady, Belichick remains a towering presence and a formidable adversary for Darnold and every other player in the division viewing the Patriots as potentially fallible.

It also is not in Darnold’s best interest to poke the bear by making any bold proclamation during the most uncertain offseason in league history. With the COVID-19 pandemic placing all professional sports on hold, no one knows when — or even if — there will be a 2020 NFL season. Darnold also tap-danced around the question of whether the Jets should consider themselves playoff-worthy not only because of Brady’s departure but because of an added wild-card playoff team beginning this season.

“We definitely have the guys who win football games,” he said. “But as we see every year, it’s about putting everything together. Right now, we’ve still got a long way to go. We’ve got some guys that are still learning the playbook. There’s still a long way to go and a lot of practices as well. Right now, we’re just working on ourselves and making sure we’re all good to go.”

Darnold will be a deciding factor in whether the Jets reach the playoffs for the first time since 2010, a decade-long drought that neither Rex Ryan nor Todd Bowles nor Adam Gase has overcome. The same goes for Mark Sanchez, Geno Smith, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Josh McCown and now Darnold.

The former USC star is their best hope — their only hope, really — and if he can take the next and most important step in his development as a starter, then there is a chance. Darnold certainly  showed flashes in his first two seasons, finishing impressively both years after some rocky moments in 2018-19. But now he needs to turn those flashes into consistency, reliability and the kind of performance that is required to win championships.

That's true regardless of who is or is not playing for another team. In fact, even if Brady were still with the Patriots, it would have been incumbent upon Darnold to lift his play substantially in Year 3. Gase said he believes Darnold is capable of doing that and that the quarterback’s familiarity with the offense will reap greater dividends.

But it is a tall task, not only because of a revamped offense that will require much practice work but also because of the unprecedented challenges posed by the limitations imposed by the coronavirus pandemic. With all NFL facilities closed, Darnold is left to practice on his own in Southern California and attend virtual meetings with the Jets’ coaches and players.

Brady may be gone and the division  finally may be up for grabs, but Darnold knows the herculean task that awaits. Which may explain his reluctance to make any bold predictions the way another Jets quarterback once did all those years ago.

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