With all realistic hope of a playoff run ending with a whimper in a dispiriting and demoralizing 13-6 loss to the Dolphins in South Florida on Sunday, the remainder of the Jets’ season has become a referendum on two people.
The first is rookie quarterback Sam Darnold, who has shown definitive signs of regression the last three weeks and will need to find his way forward and offer some hope for the future.
The other is coach Todd Bowles, who is below .500 after nine games for the third consecutive season and eventually may lose his tean.
And perhaps his job.
Darnold’s case is mostly straightforward: He’s enduring the kind of rookie growing pains common to quarterbacks, even in an era when the NFL has made it easier than ever for the passing game. Darnold leads the NFL with 14 interceptions after his four-interception debacle against the Dolphins. He was clearly the reason the Jets fell to 3-6 after producing just two measly field goals and throwing a pick-6 that all but put the game away.
“I thought I played stupid football,” Darnold said on a conference call Monday. “I just have to be better. I know that. coaches know it. Everyone knows it.”
Give Darnold credit: He’s willing to state the obvious about his game without resorting to excuses, even if there are legitimate reasons he isn’t playing well. His protection has been spotty at best, and often brutal. The running game is wholly unreliable. And he’s simply not making good decisions when going through his progressions.
But there’s no reason to sit Darnold at this point. Not only does he have a chance for a bounce-back performance at home against the lowly Bills on Sunday, but it doesn’t make sense to switch to 39-year-old Josh McCown, who most likely will be coaching football next year, not playing. Let Darnold take his lumps now, in hopes the mistakes of today will turn into the learning experiences that will help him tomorrow and beyond.
As for Bowles, he is most assuredly on the hot seat as he plods toward the end of a fourth straight season without a playoff berth. He has been given the benefit of the doubt by CEO Christopher Johnson, who was rightly impressed last year, especially the first half of the season, by Bowles’ handling of a rebuilding team. Johnson again expressed support for Bowles during the owner’s only news briefing this season, which happened to come after the team’s resounding 48-17 opening-night win over the Lions.
But the Jets have been an inconsistent mess since that tour de force — losing three straight, then winning two in a row and dropping three straight and looking worse in each successive loss during the current malaise. Bowles continues to have the support of his locker room — many players went out of their way to say it wasn’t coaching that lost Sunday’s game — but there was a disturbing disconnect nonetheless.
Bowles suggested that his defense didn’t play well enough against the Dolphins, saying the Jets needed to create turnovers in addition to holding them to mostly three-and-outs. But a three-and-out is a huge boost for a team and to do anything but heap praise on a unit that held an NFL team to two field goals was tone deaf. Bowles himself called a good game on defense, but to harp on no turnovers was to send the wrong message to the one bright spot of an otherwise dismal afternoon.
Bowles also seemed troubled by questions about why he didn’t take center Spencer Long out of the game earlier because of a series of erratic snaps caused by a broken finger. Calling the situation “fine” when it was anything but was off-putting, if not downright alarming.
Johnson will now have a major decision to make, based on whether Bowles can rally his team after increasingly weak performances. The coach has seven more games, including two against AFC East nemesis New England ,to prove he deserves to coach into 2019.
But if the losing and the poor play continue, Johnson’s decision will be an easy one. It will be time to move on.