Josh McCown initially wouldn’t commit to returning to football again after breaking his hand last December. Now he’s going to try to help fix the Jets offense.
Sam Darnold’s strained foot opened the door for the player his teammates affectionately refer to as “Uncle Josh” to start at least one more NFL game.
The Jets had no intention of benching the struggling Darnold. But going from the young rookie to old reliable could be just the spark the Jets’ offense needs to end a three-game losing streak Sunday against the Buffalo Bills at MetLife Stadium.
“You're torn because your friend and teammate, it means he can't go,” McCown said. “I don't wish that on anybody, but at the same time as a professional, as a backup quarterback you have to serve your team and go in and play winning football.
“That's what's fun. That's what you look forward to and that's why you play this game. We’ll go out and compete.”
Just competing won’t be good enough for the Jets (3-6). There was a lot of talk at the Jets practice facility this week about Sunday being a must-win game, and understandably so. It’s their last game before their bye, and they desperately need a victory against their AFC East rival, a team that has been more offensively inept than the Jets.
“It’d be huge to get a division win, going into the bye week, feeling great and coming back the next week to try and get another one,” receiver Jermaine Kearse said.
The Bills (2-7) have gotten terrible quarterback play, from Nathan Peterman, Derek Anderson and rookie Josh Allen. The Bills have ruled out Allen (elbow) and Anderson (concussion), and announced they will start newly signed Matt Barkley Sunday. He hasn’t played in an NFL game since 2016.
Buffalo has scored touchdowns in just five games this season. The Bills have only one in their last 12 quarters, and have totaled 20 points in those three games.
They rank 32 out of 32 teams in points (96) and passing yards per game (151), 31st in third-down conversion percentage (28.35), and second in interceptions thrown (16).
“I don’t think we can be fooled by records or anything like that,” Kearse said. “I don’t know why we would be looking at records.”
Right, because the Jets aren’t much better.
They’re third in interceptions (14) and 30th in third-down percentage (30.83), and they have only scored one touchdown in the last two games. The Jets’ 33 points in the last three games are the second-fewest in that span behind Buffalo.
This was pre-Uncle Josh.
The 39-year-old, well-traveled McCown isn’t the savior, but he's a respected leader on this team. And he might be able to get the Jets in the end zone – something Darnold couldn’t do last week in a 13-6 loss in Miami.
“All 11 of us have to be together and I think that's the fight,” McCown said. “We've captured that at times this year and it looks really good but we've got to be more consistent with that. That will be the plan this week.”
McCown had a career year last season for the Jets. McCown threw for 2,926 yards and 18 touchdowns in 13 games before his season ended in Denver.
He was noncommittal about playing again toward the end of last season, but then decided he wanted to return for a 16th season.
McCown competed in camp for the starting job, but it became clear early on it would be Darnold’s. So McCown has served mostly as a mentor to this point.
That could lead to some rust for McCown, who has only thrown nine passes this season – over two preseason cameos. But he believes his experience overall and with the offense will ultimately kick in. And his body feels strong from not being hit in more than two months.
“(He’s) like a spring chicken right now,” Todd Bowles said. “He hasn't played in a while, so he is very camp fresh right now. He should be fine.
“He's (39), but he has a 20-year-old mindset and he's very energetic and he's very studious. We expect him to play well.”
Depending on how Darnold heals during the bye week, this could be McCown’s last start. Bowles already has said that Darnold would regain his starting job once he’s healthy, as expected.
The Jets are all-in on developing Darnold even if it means sacrificing wins sometimes.
Darnold continues to have growing pains. He was ineffective last week, finishing with his first four-interception game. But Bowles said he never considered replacing him with McCown.
This week, Bowles had no choice, and McCown’s teammates saw a noticeable difference in how things ran in practice because of his knowledge and comfort level.
“He has a little bit more confidence in what’s going on, knowing how they’re going to attack you, knowing the playbook,” receiver Quincy Enunwa said. “Those type of things are going to come with time. With Josh being in the league for so long he already has that feel and knows those type of things.”
Kearse said the tempo of the offense picked up a little with McCown. His decision-making naturally is quicker than Darnold’s. The rookie admitted this week to second-guessing himself.
Offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates said the Jets would be more aggressive and try to take some shots down the field. McCown probably won’t have a favorite target from last year, Robby Anderson, who is doubtful with an ankle injury. But McCown and Kearse could rekindle the chemistry they had last season.
Kearse set career-highs in receptions (65), yards (810) and touchdowns (five) after being acquired from Seattle. He only has 22 catches for 225 yards and no TDs this year.
“Last year we had a really good connection,” Kearse said. “I’m looking forward to continuing it.”
For one game at least.