The New York Jets were on a resuscitator when they walked onto the field at MetLife Stadium on Sunday. Listless. Lousy. Losers.
Until Sunday, they had been relying on an ill-equipped third-string quarterback so bad they had to release him on Saturday after two horrific starts.
They were playing in a stadium more than half-filled with boosters of their opponent, a tribute to the second-half ticket market and the malaise of their own fanbase.
What they needed was a boost, a sign things could get better.
And that’s what Sam Darnold gave them.
It’s not unusual for NFL teams to be built around quarterbacks. They handle the ball, make the money, are greatly responsible for the public’s perception of them.
But what’s rare is seeing one literally lift his team from the gutter with an inspired performance just days after being medically cleared to return following a month battling mononucleosis.
Say what you will about the Jets 24-22 win over the Dallas Cowboys. But it was one few expected. And its one that could be responsible for the resurrection of a team that had been stumbling and bumbling its way through the season.
“Any time you win, it’s a lot better feeling than losing,” said Jets coach Adam Gase. “There was a lot of good. His pocket movement creates a lot of opportunities, and our guys did a good job of moving with him.”
Yes they did.
There is a reason why Darnold was a first-round draft pick last season. He is a remarkable talent with remarkable poise for a 22-year-old. And you could see his team respond to him on Sunday once he began to make plays the Jets had been unable to make during his absence.
Much like the Cleveland Browns, the Jets were expected to take a step forward in the AFC East this season, maybe not enough to scare the New England Patriots, but enough to convince them of the possibility of being pushed in a year or two.
And then it all fell apart when Darnold fell sick and Trevor Siemian was injured in his stead during Week 2’s Monday Night game against the Browns.
After starting the season with a nail-biting loss to the Buffalo Bills, the Jets had been pounded by the Browns, Patriots and Eagles, losing by a combined score of 84-23.
Two weeks ago, their quarterbacks were sacked 10 times in Philadelphia. They looked pathetic offensively with Luke Falk under center. Siemian and Falk had led the team to only one offensive touchdown and an average of 165 yards per game. It was an unsustainable situation.
Then the doctors cleared Darnold to return. With it, came the promise that things would get better. And basking in the cheers of the Jets fans who bothered to show up, Darnold lit the fuse by connecting with Demaryius Thomas for 17 yards on New York’s first play from scrimmage.
“That’s when I knew we were going to have a good game offensively,” Darnold said.
Then things really started to get rolling. The next drive covered 83 yards on 14 plays and led to Le’Veon Bell’s 2-yard touchdown run. The Jets defense then chipped in by stopping the Cowboys on a fourth-and-goal in the second quarter.
With the noise level rising in the stadium, Darnold then dropped back and fired a laser into the outstretched arms of the wide open Robby Anderson for a 92-yard score that brought the house down. It was the second-longest scoring pass in the history of the franchise.
“It was amazing to have my brother back out there,” said Anderson. “It makes a big difference.”
And then just for emphasis, Darnold took the Jets on a 65-yard gallop, eventually hitting tight end Ryan Griffin for a score that help the Jets build a 21-6 lead at the half.
That the Jets had to stop a two-point conversion at the end of the game to prevent overtime seems almost inconsequential. Darnold had completed 23-of-32 for 338 yards and two touchdowns. And the Jets were back in business.
“When you’re out for so long like I was, you realize this game is a privilege to play it,” said Darnold, who was playing with a cast protecting his spleen, which was compromised by the mononucleosis.
“It didn’t affect me at all. The pads worked great. Super light and also protected me well.”
No one seemed happier about it than Jets safety Jamal Adams. He was hyped the entire day, clearly feeding off the energy Darnold was creating.
Adams was asked after the game what he thought of it all.
“What do you think?” said Adams said “I mean, sh–. He did a damn good job. He did a good job, man. … Sam came in and did a helluva job. He put up points for us, and that’s what we need.
“We knew with Sam back we’d move the ball. He wasn’t drafted in the top five for no reason. He’s a helluva quarterback. He’s a helluva leader. A helluva competitor. He’s going to go out there and make his (plays).”
Are the Jets going to make the playoffs at 1-4? Very doubtful. But if not for Darnold, they might have competed with the Miami Dolphins and Cincinnati Bengals for the worst team in the AFC.
The Jets don’t have a lot of time to feel good about Sunday. They play the unbeaten Patriots on Sunday back at MetLife Stadium. After that, who knows. The schedule gets a lot easier with two games against the Dolphins and others against the Bengals and Redskins (1-5).
But at least where there once was darkness, there now is light.
“He’s (Darnold) special,” said Bell.