Back in 2011, on a late January night that dipped well below freezing in Pittsburgh, there was no respite from the roving packs of Jets fans strewn throughout every bar in the city.
Tucked inside tumbling walls of Miller Lite cans, they were easily identifiable from the drunken rally cry, which almost certainly tortured every bartender simply trying to survive a shift: Here we go, here we go, here we go here we go, THE JETS ARE GOIN’ TO THE SUUUUUPER BOWL. The team had already edged Peyton Manning in Indianapolis and gut-punched Tom Brady in Foxborough. It seemed like the beginning of something. A barreling group of loud, impetuous veterans and their cocksure head coach. It was an identity, and by the looks of things, it felt like something good to be a part of.
That was 2,788 days ago before a loss in the AFC Championship Game and, before Monday’s 48-17 throttling of the Detroit Lions in prime time, probably the last time we’ve seen the franchise allowing its fans to experience this type of high. On the broadcast, there were people in Jets throwbacks dancing in the aisles. Fireman Ed, who once walked away amid the team’s public combustion, was front and center, starting a trademark cheer by a gathering of fans who swarmed the visitors’ bench. This was the most points the Jets scored in a road game since 1968, the year they won the Super Bowl. It was eerie.
For those reading this, eyes stuck in a perpetual roll, Sam Darnold’s debut is exempt from overreaction Monday. Modern Jets fans have learned to exist in a world similar to other masochists or adrenaline junkies—a constant state of unshakable euphoria, or bottomed-out misery and shame. This is a franchise that has crowned the next Joe Namath time and time again only to watch as they flamed out, got crunched behind a crumbling offensive line, or fled at the first glimpse of contractual freedom.
They live one moment at a time, and Monday night was a moment.
Darnold started his tenure with a looping bootleg to the right side. After stepping up in the pocket, he made an awkward, cross-field throw to the numbers near the left sideline. His running back Bilal Powell was running a wheel route, though Lions corner Quandre Diggs was perched in zone, waiting to snatch the ball and take it to the house.
From the lowest pit in professional football, he put together a steady performance: 16-of-21 for 198 yards and two touchdowns. While most of the night was the product of an efficient intermediate passing game designed by offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates, Darnold’s first touchdown came just a foot inside the 50-yard line on third-and-2. He chucked a frozen rope to streaking receiver Robby Anderson, landing the ball just over the shoulder of Lions safety Tavon Wilson. He was mobbed by three of his offensive linemen. The Jets went up 10, and would go on to score 31 points in the third quarter from a pick-six, another Darnold touchdown, a 62-yard touchdown run by Isaiah Crowell and a stunning punt return along the sideline.
By my unofficial count, Darnold was releasing the ball, on average, about 3.027 seconds per throw which, when counted against the rest of the quarterbacks from Sunday via NFL Next Gen Stats, would put him in the neighborhood of Tyrod Taylor, Alex Smith, Joe Flacco and Russell Wilson (Next Gen Stats had Darnold at 3.26 seconds per throw). It was not nearly as quick as Darnold’s preseason numbers against vanilla fronts.
The game was not won by the rookie quarterback, though. Matt Stafford was picked four times, held to a passer rating under 50. The team’s two starting running backs averaged more than five yards per carry. Leonard Williams and Henry Anderson got into the backfield. Darnold was merely the face of what seemed to be an outpouring of frustration and energy.
Things were not the same after that night in Pittsburgh. It was soon embarrassing to be associated with the high-riding Rex Ryan and the false promises of a short but brilliant run. And maybe this new identity, built around young, homegrown players with upside, runs its course once opposing defenses figure out how to jam Darnold’s passing lanes within 15 yards of the line. Maybe the Lions are just truly, remarkably bad. Maybe the Jets will still struggle to hit the quarterback.
But for at least one week, it will probably feel like January 2011 again for Jets fans. Like the start of something significant.