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Sam Darnold has improved, but he's still no sure thing to develop into a star

Sam Darnold of the Jets moves behind the

Sam Darnold of the Jets moves behind the line of scrimmage during the fourth quarter against the Bills at New Era Field on Sunday in Orchard Park, N.Y. Credit: Getty Images/Brett Carlsen

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y.

Two years and 26 games in, what do we know about Sam Darnold? Not enough.

It could be worse, of course. The Jets could have used the No. 3 pick in the 2018 NFL Draft — 29 spots ahead of Lamar Jackson, if you are scoring at home — on a quarterback who seemed overmatched on or off the field.

Darnold certainly is not that.

But it could be better. The Jets could have a guy like, well, Lamar Jackson.

So here we are, which is . . . unclear. Sunday’s 13-6 victory over the waiting-for-the-playoffs-to-start Bills at New Era Field made the Jets 6-2 in the second half of the season. But it was the second win in a row in which the offense mostly tried not to mess up as the defense dominated.

Darnold was mediocre on a wet afternoon that made throwing footballs tricky, going 23-for-36 for 199 yards, one touchdown and one interception, with a second pick erased by a penalty.

He would have had a second touchdown pass if not for an unsightly underthrow to an open Daniel Brown in the end zone.

“It was a bad throw,” he said later. “I was going out to my left and it was just one of those throws that I’d like to have back.”

There were others. Still, during the final eight games, Darnold had 13 touchdown passes and four interceptions. In the first half of the season, when he missed three games because of illness, he had six touchdown passes and nine interceptions.

But the Jets need more than a heady game manager who has learned to limit turnovers and who shows flashes of the sublime, as in TD passes this month to Jamison Crowder against the Ravens and Robby Anderson against the Steelers.

They need a star. If that does not happen by this time next season, it might not, even though he is only 22. The good news is that he will begin Year 3 with the same coach/quarterback guru in place after Adam Gase was guaranteed a second season by CEO Christopher Johnson.

In theory, that is a big bonus. Darnold thinks so. “Having stability is important,” he said. “To be able to walk into next year knowing the offense we’re going to be running, it’s great.”

I told Darnold that many journalists and fans still are unsure just how good he can be, which he presumably knew already. Then I asked if he knows how good he can be.

“I’ve always been confident in myself and my abilities,” he said. “It’s about going out there and playing consistent football.”

Darnold uses the “c” word often, and consistency surely would help. But this is about more than that. It is about elevating one’s game from “good enough to start in the NFL” to “good enough to win a championship.”

We shall see. But there is no turning back in the short term, so Sam it is.

Asked how he thought he played Sunday, he said, “I feel like I always kind of walk away wanting more, but at the same time, I didn’t play my best but played good enough to win, and that’s all that matters.”

Sort of. It was good enough on a day when the Bills rested many regulars and pulled quarterback Josh Allen (the seventh pick in the 2018 draft) before the first quarter was over.

Darnold said he “learned a ton” this season, and teammates seem to agree. Le’Veon Bell, who used to play with Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh, said “Sam grew up” in 2019, especially in the mental part of the game.

“I’m eager to see how much he grows going into next year, too,” the running back said. “He’s going to get a lot more comfortable when we really slow it down in the offseason, OTAs, minicamps. It’s going to be fun.”

It had better be.

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