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The rest of the Jets' season is an audition for Sam Darnold's future

Sam Darnold #14 of the New York Jets

Sam Darnold #14 of the New York Jets prepares for a play during the first quarter against the Denver Broncos at MetLife Stadium on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2020 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Credit: Jim McIsaac

Sam Darnold is not the Jets’ savior. He won’t be able to save their season or coach Adam Gase. But the third-year quarterback could save his own job and perhaps end all Trevor-Lawrence-to-the-Jets talk.

Darnold is expected to return Sunday to face Buffalo after missing the prior two games with a sprained right shoulder. These could be the final 10 games of Darnold’s Jets’ career, or he could show enough to remain in green and white in 2021.

The Jets are the NFL’s only winless team and could drop to 0-7 on Sunday. After that they face the Chiefs and Patriots. They still have to play at Seattle and the L.A. Rams.

You can see where this is going. The outlook is bleak. The prize for finishing with the worst record, though, is Lawrence, Clemson’s star quarterback.

But Darnold should have plenty of say in whether the Jets are in position to draft Lawrence.

If Darnold can raise his game and lift this sorry offense that is finally getting healthy, the Jets might actually win a game or two and potentially knock themselves out of the Lawrence sweepstakes.

The people who spend the most time with Darnold believe if everyone around him does his job, the Jets will give themselves a chance to win some games.

"You see his talent. I think it flashes," offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said. "A lot of times good quarterback play comes from the other guys around him doing their jobs . . . We need to start coaching better. We need to start playing better around him.

"Sam is the least of our worries."

General manager Joe Douglas ultimately will decide whether to continue to build around Darnold, who indeed shows flashes, but still not enough to anoint him a franchise quarterback yet.

Darnold is 11-19 as a starter. He’s thrown three interceptions or more five times, including Week 3 at Indianapolis. Unimpressive to say the least. But over the last three years, the Jets are 0-8 without Darnold with only two touchdown passes and have been outscored by 154 points.

This season, Darnold has accounted for four of the Jets’ six offensive touchdowns. (Yes, that’s it!) He’s thrown three touchdown passes and had a wild 46-yard TD run. The Jets, with Joe Flacco at the offensive controls, scored one touchdown in the two games Darnold missed.

"You see how much he affects the offense in a positive way," Loggains said. "A lot of the plays happen off schedule. He’s had to create things and do things that way."

Darnold also has played some of his best ball coming off of injuries or illnesses: He’s 2-0 and thrown for 508 yards with three touchdowns. That could bode well for the Jets on Sunday.

As a rookie, Darnold returned from a three-game absence and led the Jets to a win over the Bills with two fourth-quarter touchdown drives. On the first score, Darnold scrambled right and then left before firing it to Robby Anderson in the end zone.

Last year, Darnold threw for a career-best 338 yards and two touchdowns in a victory over the Cowboys in his return from a three-game bout with mononucleosis.

While all the talk around the Jets has been about Tanking for Trevor, Darnold has put his focus into getting healthy and trying to lead the Jets to their first victory.

"He’s handling everything as well as he can in the situation we’re in," Gase said. "He wants to win. He wants to be out there. He wants to make sure that he’s doing the right thing for his guys and for everybody in the organization.

"I don’t hear him talk about it. I don’t hear him use the energy to worry about something like that. His focus is on, ‘I’m playing this week.’"

Not long ago, people looked and talked about Darnold in a similar way as Lawrence now.

Darnold was supposed to be the No. 1 pick in 2018. He fell to the Jets at No. 3. They were ecstatic. Their fans, too. They had their quarterback that would lead them to greatness.

Physically and mentally tough, mature beyond his years with a strong arm, Darnold just needed coaching to get him to that elite level. Gase was supposed to be that coach. That hasn’t gone as planned and this season has turned into a real dumpster fire.

But Gase said it’s unfair to judge Darnold fully because he has yet to play with his full complement of weapons.

That never happened last season. It technically won’t this year since Le’Veon Bell was waived.

The Jets had hoped to have their planned starting receiving group of Jamison Crowder, Breshad Perriman and Denzel Mims on the field together Sunday for the first time. Mims was activated from IR on Saturday, but Crowder was downgraded to doubtful because of a groin injury.

The Darnold evaluation process has been ongoing. But the Jets are interested in seeing what he can do with better talent around him.

"He’s playing through a lot of different things," Loggains said. "He’s playing with a lot of different people, different people in the huddle. I absolutely think Sam is getting better.

"I don’t think it’s fair to evaluate him at this point. But we know the nature of the beast and he understands the nature the beast. In this business you’re judged on production and winning as a quarterback. That’s the bottom line."

The Jets will be playing meaningful games in November and December, but it will be for draft positioning and for Douglas to determine whether Darnold is a part of the future.

"I think he’s proven that he can be tough and mentally strong," Flacco said. "I think this is one of those things that, when you have confidence in somebody like him, if you come out on the other end of this, it makes you that much better of a player."

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