NFL power rankings 8.0: Steelers rise to No. 1 spot
SportsPulse: For the first time this season, and the first time in a long time, the Pittsburgh Steelers have taken the number one spot in the power rankings. Mackenzie provides the biggest risers and fallers of the week.
Sunday’s loss to the Buffalo Bills was the perfect encapsulation of quarterback Sam Darnold’s maddening two-plus seasons with the New York Jets.
There were great drives and brilliant throws early, showcasing the potentially bright future of a 23-year-old. But there was a brutal, costly decision and a horrific offensive funk. And in the end, as we’ve seen so many times before, Darnold couldn’t do enough to overcome it and win the game.
The message from Darnold’s coach and teammates on Monday was clear: It’s not his fault.
“There’s some things that are out of his control,” Jets coach Adam Gase said. “There’s certain things that he does really well that he’s trying to try to do the right thing and putting us in position and we got to be better as a group around him.”
That’s true. But it’s not the full story. And it doesn’t really matter whose fault it is. The reality is that if something doesn’t change quickly. the final nine games of the season could be the last in which Darnold wears a Jets uniform.
Early in the game, it seemed like Darnold was poised to break out of his early-season funk in a big way. After two games away because of a shoulder sprain, Darnold completed 10 of his first 11 passes.
He made one of the best throws of his career, a perfectly placed rocket to Braxton Berrios near the sideline on third-and-20 for a first down. That throw helped him lead the offense into the red zone on each of its first three drives. And midway through the second quarter, a Jets team that had played from behind nearly all season had a 10-0 lead over the best team in the AFC East.
But there had been warning signs. The Jets had failed to get into the end zone on those first two drives. And then came the red flag as big as the field at MetLife Stadium.
Late in the first half, with the Jets at midfield, Darnold forced a throw to receiver Jeff Smith who was covered by several defenders. It was an inexplicable decision, and the pass was easily intercepted by Bills safety Dane Jackson.
Darnold wasn’t interested in blaming anyone else for that one.
“The first interception was a terrible mistake,” Darnold said. “And something that I truly feel like isn’t going to happen again.”
The problem is that it seems to happen every game or two, which is part of the reason why Darnold is playing for his job right now. This interception was particularly costly. The Bills turned it into a field goal right before halftime, taking all the momentum into the locker room after cutting the lead to 10-6.
“The game that we play is tough and interceptions are going to happen,” Darnold said. “But for me it’s just about when they don’t need to happen, limiting them, not making it any easier for the other team to win the game.
“So, it’s just about going out there and doing all that I can to put us in good positions and not make dumb decisions like that and keep us on the right track, keep us on the winning track throughout the game.”
From there, it turned into a nightmare for Darnold. He completed just one of his final 12 passes, for a total of 13 yards.
The Bills started to blitz, and the offensive line couldn’t handle it. With Darnold under fire on nearly every play, he couldn’t provide the spark his team needed in a winnable game. The Jets had just four yards of total offense in the second half.
Darnold was sacked four times after halftime and the offensive line committed three penalties on the final drive, in which the Jets could have tied the game. Instead, it ended with Darnold interception on a tipped pass.
“We didn’t protect very well,” Jets offensive guard Greg Van Roten said. “We gave up a bunch of sacks, bunch of pressures, a bunch of hits on the quarterback. And it’s hard to be successful when you don’t give your quarterback and your skill position guys a chance to make plays.”
Darnold’s future in New York
In the end, it doesn’t matter whose fault it is. If things continue on the current path, this will be the end of the road for Darnold.
If the Jets have the No. 1 overall pick, they’ll almost certainly take Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence.
Yes, Darnold is in a terrible situation and he has a lot to overcome. But the Jets have already played in two winnable games this season, and Darnold couldn’t do enough to get them over the top. If Darnold can’t do enough in the final nine games to pick up a win or two to avoid the Jets getting the No. 1 overall pick, how can the Jets justify passing up the opportunity with Lawrence?
Not only is Lawrence one of the best prospects out of college in the past two decades, but he gives the team an opportunity to reset the clock on their quarterback’s salary. It would be the right move for the organization.
And it doesn’t mean Darnold won’t have a successful future in this league. He has obvious talent, but the Jets put him in a terrible position. Perhaps with more talent around him and a better coaching staff, he can finally realize his potential.
But that doesn’t make what he’s going through right now any easier.
“I just keep thinking, he’s 23, none of this can be easy,” Gase said. “He’s a guy that did so much good in college and won a lot of football games and things haven’t always gone as smoothly as you know everybody always hopes when they get to the NFL, this is what makes the NFL really tough. And it’s a mental battle the majority of the time, is can you survive the test? Can you get better through the adversity that you have to go through?”
We’ll find out in the next two months. And when it’s over, the Jets’ next move will be obvious.