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After slow start, Jets have reason for optimism in 2020

Sarm Darnold was all smiles after the Jets

Sarm Darnold was all smiles after the Jets beat the Steelers.  Credit: Lee S. Weissman/Lee S. Weissman

The Jets’ season started with a disappointing one-point loss to the Bills and will end with more disappointment Sunday in Buffalo.

There are no playoffs for a ninth straight year after a tumultuous season in which Sam Darnold missed a month with mononucleosis, 19 players were placed on injured reserve and fans clamored for Adam Gase’s dismissal just eight games into the job.

Darnold’s illness, as well as linebacker C.J. Mosley’s groin injury suffered in Week 1 against the Bills, helped derail the Jets’ season. Maybe they would be playing for something Sunday if Darnold had played all season or if Mosley had appeared in more than two games.

The Jets’ troubles in 2019 went well beyond those things, and there is blame to be spread around. But if there is one redeeming quality about this team, it’s that after a 1-7 start, the Jets didn’t fall apart — even when it looked as if that were close to happening. They’ve gone 5-2 since then and see better days ahead.

“We’re moving in the right direction,” Darnold said.

The Jets (6-9) have reason for optimism as they close out the season against playoff-bound Buffalo (10-5).

They still need to add some game-changers through the draft, free agency or trades. But because of injuries, the Jets have found some players on both sides of the ball who can help them next season or at least provide depth.

Darnold’s development also is a reason for hope.

He didn’t make the big leap everyone hoped for in his second season, but it’s hard to know how much Darnold was set back by his illness. He lost weight, strength and, most importantly, the practice and game reps that young quarterbacks need.

But he certainly made strides, especially in the second half of the season. The Jets went 0-3 without Darnold. They’re 6-6 with him, with a chance at 7-6.

During this seven-game stretch, Darnold has completed 60.6% of his passes for 1,748 yards and thrown 12 touchdown passes and three interceptions. In his first five games, he threw nine interceptions and only six touchdown passes.

“Every practice, every game, every time we get a chance to do meetings where he's learning and he's preparing, that's a good thing for us because he's just building that library up,” Gase said. “He's building that knowledge up every time he takes a snap in a live game. It's more experience for him.

“He's seeing things that he might've saw earlier in the year and it looks cleaner to him now. It slows down. He knows what to do. He knows what his problems are. He knows what his outs are.”

That’s why these last few games are so important for Darnold and the Jets collectively. They have faced or will face some of the top teams and defenses in the AFC as well as the NFL.

In Baltimore two weeks ago, Darnold threw two touchdown passes against the league’s best team.

The defense was overmatched that night by Lamar Jackson, and Darnold made one really bad decision that led to an interception. But one of his TD passes, a tight-window pass to Jamison Crowder while Darnold was rolling out, is a throw not every quarterback can make.

“That was ridiculous,” Gase said. “When he sees it like that, that’s when you realize it’s slowed down for him.”

Last Sunday against the Steelers, Darnold threw another difficult TD pass in traffic to Robby Anderson, who made a terrific catch. Darnold led four scoring drives against that vaunted defense.

The Bills, who won’t play many starters for the entire game, own the No. 3 passing defense and third-ranked defense overall. It’s another opportunity for Darnold to get comfortable in Gase’s offense and see an aggressive defense that throws different looks at quarterbacks.

“Playing those teams, it's fun,” Darnold said. “Whenever you go out there and it's a tough scheme against really good players, it challenges you and brings out the best in everyone.”

Many things don’t carry over to the next season because there is so much change and upheaval. The Jets' offensive line, backfield and receiving corps could look very different.

Darnold will be back, though, and he will have a year of Gase’s system under his belt. Gase said rewatching the Week 1 game against the Bills with Darnold, it’s clear how much he’s grown.

“His communication has improved so much,” Gase said. “It's kind of weird playing a team Week 17 compared to Week 1. We're watching a lot of that stuff and now he's able to say, ‘Hey, we should've done this’ or ‘We should do this’ and 'I'm looking at it like this.' It's pretty cool to kind of see how far everything has come since then.”

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