Florham Park, N.J. — Sam Darnold has looked every bit the top quarterback the Jets envisioned when they drafted him with the third overall pick out of USC. Teddy Bridgewater has been even better than expected after returning from nearly two years away from the game because of a severe knee injury.
Hey, remember Josh McCown?
The 39-year-old veteran is still listed first on the depth chart, and coach Todd Bowles hasn’t announced that anyone else will be the starter heading into the season. But with the Jets coaches trying to get a definitive read on Darnold and Bridgewater during the preseason, McCown may very well be losing his grip on the starting job.
If he hasn’t already.
McCown has played just one series in the Jets’ first two preseason games, and it’s likely Darnold and Bridgewater will take most, if not all, the snaps in Friday’s exhibition against the Giants at MetLife Stadium. It’s a similar arrangement to last year when the Jets wanted to get a better read on Christian Hackenberg and Bryce Petty during the preseason. But unlike that arrangement, which wound up with McCown as the starter because neither Hackenberg nor Petty distinguished himself, Darnold and Bridgewater have performed well in practice and the games.
McCown understands the deal and knows nothing is guaranteed. Including his place in the pecking order at quarterback.
“Obviously, we traded up to three [in the draft] to get Sam, because there’s a plan in place. I understand that,” McCown said. “My goal is for the quarterback room to play well. If that’s me playing out there, I want to play the best ball I can. If that’s Sam or if that’s Teddy, whoever it is, that’s the goal. We want to do whatever we can to win football games. That’s my focus, and it hasn’t shifted or changed.”
You will not get one iota of complaint from McCown, whose maturity and leadership qualities are what prompted the Jets to re-sign him after he did a capable job as last year’s starter. Bowles said McCown would go into the season as the starter — even after Bridgewater signed a one-year deal as a free agent and Darnold was drafted.
But it’s increasingly likely that the Jets will go with either Darnold or Bridgewater as the starter, and with Darnold showing plenty of improvement from the time he first arrived, it isn’t a stretch that he starts right away.
“It’s fun to play, there’s no doubt about it. That’s why we do it, to compete,” McCown said. “But at the same time, it’s also fun to see your team do well and see the quarterbacks play well. When you can focus on that, that’s also a way of competing. As long as those guys play well, that’s all that matters.”
McCown has seen enough of Darnold to know that he has adapted more quickly to the pro game than most rookie quarterbacks.
“I don’t want to put any undue expectations on [Darnold], but I’ve been impressed with him, of any kind of rookie player I’ve been around,” McCown said. “His ability to go from the classroom to the field has been impressive. He just has to keep growing one day at a time and keep taking the next step. The coaches will determine that. Our job as the quarterback room is to be ready to go with whoever is called upon. Once [the coaches] determine who that guy is, we’ll get behind him and help that guy get ready.”
McCown surely hopes his name will be called by Bowles to be the opening day starter, and it makes some sense to go with a veteran presence early on, especially with the Jets playing three games in a 10-day stretch to begin the season. But with Darnold and Bridgewater both playing so well to this point, McCown’s days as the top guy on the depth chart may be numbered.
And he’s OK with that, even if he’s actually helping his competitors take the job from him.
“It’s fun to be out there playing. There’s no substitute for that,” McCown said. “But at the same time, I’m like, man, if you can help be a part of finding that guy that can be the guy for this franchise for a long time, that means something to me. That’s competitive to me. That’s what we get up and come to work to do. That’s what makes it fun. I don’t feel like the forgotten guy because we’re busy every day working on those things. That’s all that matters.”
McCown is a firm believer in the concept of paying it forward, which is exactly what he’s doing by helping Darnold and Bridgewater any way he can.
“At the end of the day,” he said, “you work as hard as you can, you help as many people as you can, and then you lay down and you can have peace in your heart at night. That’s really what I’ve learned growing up and that’s all I know. You can’t let all the other stuff bother you. I don’t know how many more years of this will happen, and so you treasure every moment.”