The Jets already were trying to build something sustainable, but they were still missing a long-term answer at quarterback. As soon as they drafted Sam Darnold hope and expectations for this team have soared.
The rookie out of USC still has a lot to prove. But the Jets, and many around the league, believe they have finally found the kind of franchise-leading quarterback who could someday end their Super Bowl drought, which is up to 50 years and counting.
The Jets still have holes on both sides of the ball, and the 21-year-old Darnold has plenty to learn and experience before he’s that type of player and leader. But the energy and “vibe” are different, according to many players, who feel that they can take a big step forward this season.
“The vibe of the team is it seems like everybody knows that we can be something this year,” defensive end Leonard Williams said. “We feel like we can actually take this somewhere this year. Guys are buying in and trying to do their best. Guys aren’t doing the minimum. They’re going out of their way to watch extra film.
“What I like the most is people are bringing people up with them. The vibe is contagious. It gets ingrained in everybody.”
After back-to-back 5-11 finishes - the first season they underachieved and were a disappointment while last year they were more competitive than expected – really have nowhere to go but up.
But the Jets have to finish better, which has been a point of emphasis all summer. The Jets lost five games by seven points or fewer last year and were outscored by 72 points in the fourth quarter. Only the Colts had a worse differential
Owner Christopher Johnson hasn’t put a mandate on making the playoffs for general manager Mike Maccagnan and coach Todd Bowles. Johnson has said he wants to see progress before the Jets go into an offseason when they can take a giant leap toward contending.
The Jets projected to have more than $90 million in salary-cap space and early-round draft picks that they should be able to find a pass rusher, improve their offensive line to protect Darnold and get him more weapons.
But Williams feels the Jets can end their seven-year playoff drought this season.
“We have the belief we’re going somewhere this year,” Williams said. “I love that feeling. We don’t have to wait until next year and years after. We don’t have to listen to what outside people are saying, ‘They need a few more pieces. Maybe next year. Maybe next year.’ We could really do it this year if we wanted to. All it takes is all the guys just being into it.”
This is not all about Darnold. The Jets, whose main free-agent additions were Trumaine Johnson, inside linebacker Avery Williamson, center Spencer Long and receiver Terrelle Pryor, have upgraded their talent and seem to have a better locker room
Outspoken safety Jamal Adams accused players who are no longer on the team of doing “the bare minimum” last year. Two players he may have been referring to are Sheldon Richardson, who was traded to Seattle before last season started, and Muhammed Wilkerson who signed with Green Bay.
For the Jets, it could be a case of addition by subtraction, as well as straight addition.
“We’re further along than last year just overall, as a group, the chemistry of the group,” Josh McCown said. “Everything I think is just growing better. The way we work together is better. The standards we’ve set for one another is better. The talent that we built is better. I think all in all we’re in a good position. That excites us, but we still got to go do it.”
Johnson, a true No. 1 cover corner, will allow Bowles to dial up more safety blitzes from Adams and Marcus Maye. The talented two second-year safeties along with Williams are part of a relatively young core that could be an edge rusher away from being a stout defense.
The offense will go as far as Darnold can take it. He’s shown incredible poise and maturity in the face of all the hype and pressure.
“I’m going to continue to be the same person,” Darnold said. “I’m going to continue to be the person that my parents raised me to be. Nothing is going to change that. Even if the stakes are a little bit higher. Being in the NFL and being able to play this awesome game for a living, it doesn’t change my outlook on life or how I’m going to be as a person.”
But he’s helped change the expectations for the Jets, who hope to have found the quarterback to lead them for the next 12-15 years.
“You feel it for sure,” Williams said. “You hear them (the fans) screaming Sam’s name. You hear them screaming for the Jets and feel the excitement from the fans.
“Sam has been doing a great job. He’s definitely going to be one of those type of quarterbacks one day. Even sooner than later probably because he’s such a professional already. I’m proud of him. I’m proud of the way the team is going. I’m excited.”