BUFFALO — The Jets spent the first two days of practice this week outside on their wide-open fields in the frigid cold to help prepare them for what they will face Sunday.
This was for everyone on the team’s benefit, but particularly for Sam Darnold. The rookie quarterback is expected to return Sunday from a three-game absence with a foot injury.
Darnold grew up in Southern California and played his college ball for USC. That’s a long way from Buffalo, where temperatures are expected to be in the low 30s.
Darnold was in short sleeves the first day of practice but wore a wetsuit under his jersey. The next day, he wore a long-sleeve shirt under it.
“It’s fun watching him get used to throwing in the cold,” offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates said. “It’s a new experience for him. He’s handling it well.”
Todd Bowles wouldn’t officially name Darnold his starter despite the fact that he fully participated in practice all week for the first time since he hurt his foot Nov. 4 in Miami, a game in which he threw four interceptions. It would be stunning if Josh McCown started a fourth straight game.
Darnold will need to shake off the rust, but he said he got used to the cold pretty quickly and won’t let it affect him Sunday. He has gotten a crash course in not letting adverse situations and conditions bring him down.
The Jets are 3-9, have dropped six straight and have been officially eliminated from playoff contention for the eighth straight season. Their last win was Oct. 14. They lost a heartbreaker last week, giving up the Titans’ game-winning touchdown with 36 seconds left.
Darnold has never lost this much and hasn’t been able to help his team recently. “It’s been tough,” he said. “Watching and not having a chance to do anything about it.”
With four games left, the Jets are trying not to look back — with the exception being their last game against the Bills (4-8).
Throughout the week, Jets players talked about how the humiliating 31-point home loss to Buffalo in Week 10 has lingered and festered. Jamal Adams said several times, “It’s personal.”
We’ll see how that translates to Sunday. But Darnold missed the first game against the Bills. He’s just looking forward to shaking the rust off and playing again. His focus is on improving and trying to end the season on a positive note
“Definitely want to gain some momentum going into the offseason,” he said.
The Jets will undergo plenty of changes from a coaching and player standpoint this offseason, but Darnold will be back and leading the offense again. The organization believes he can help them become a perennial playoff team. That’s why these games are so critical for him and his development and the growth of the franchise.
With roughly $100 million to spend in free agency, the Jets plan to go big-game and big-name hunting in hopes of ending their playoff drought next year. They’ll need Darnold to be much better in Year 2.
Darnold has thrown 11 touchdown passes and 14 interceptions, which still leads the league even though he missed three games.
“There’s nothing like game experience,” he said. “Nothing like getting out there and playing and experiencing those reps live.”
This should be the first of many meetings between Darnold and Bills rookie quarterback Josh Allen. They were taken third and seventh, respectively, in the draft and now are divisional rivals.
Darnold and Allen spent time together before the draft working out in California with quarterback guru Jordan Palmer and became friends. Neither played in the Nov. 11 game at MetLife Stadium.
In that contest, Matt Barkley shredded the Jets’ defense in his first NFL game in two years. Allen had an elbow issue that sidelined him for four games. This is his third game back.
Bowles compared Allen’s arm strength to John Elway’s, but Allen has been more effective running the ball than throwing it.
In the two games in which he’s been back, Allen threw for 391 yards and three touchdowns and ran for 234 yards and a score. Jets defensive coordinator Kacy Rodgers said some of Allen’s runs are by design but some are from scrambling.
“If they block it up and go max protect, he can throw it about 80 yards,” Rodgers said. “Then if it isn’t there, he can take off and outrun everybody that’s chasing him.”
Like Darnold, Allen has had his struggles, but coach Sean McDermott believes the four games Allen spent watching were beneficial. Allen threw two touchdown passes and five interceptions in his first six games and has thrown three touchdown passes in his last two.
“Sometimes to take a step back, slow things down, and see things from a different perspective offers an opportunity,” McDermott said. “Then it’s what you do with that opportunity in terms of how far you grow during the time that you’re out.”
It’s Darnold’s turn now.
He had a chance to get his body right and said he learned a lot by watching McCown prepare during the week and go through his reads each game. But as Bowles said, “only play will tell” whether Darnold benefited from the break.
Comparing this season’s first-year NFL quarterbacks:
Rating Player, Team Comp. Att. Yds/G TD INT
91.1 Baker Mayfield, Browns 224 354 263.9 18 10
73.5 Lamar Jackson, Ravens 46 77 45.0 2 3
68.3 Sam Darnold, Jets 159 289 214.9 11 14
68.2 Josh Rosen, Cardinals 148 273 167.0 10 11
66.3 Josh Allen, Bills 101 191 152.9 5 7