The Jets are not mathematically eliminated from contention, but everyone knows what 0-4 really means. It may be too early to officially surrender, but it’s right about the time when long-term things start to matter more than the stormy present.
That’s the dilemma the Jets are facing with Sam Darnold right now, and that’s why their decision to declare him out this week was an easy one. The only thing of importance left in this season is to find out if Darnold is the franchise quarterback, and possibly if he can thrive under the direction of Adam Gase. They need to know that by the end of this season.
And they can’t do that if he’s standing on the sideline in a sling.
That’s why the Jets couldn’t play the 23-year-old Darnold, not unless they were absolutely sure his sprained right shoulder was 100 percent. They can not risk him taking a hit that might knock him out for several weeks, or turn this into a season-long problem. They need to be able to evaluate him at full-strength, whenever that is.
“We went through our process,” Gase explained, after naming veteran Joe Flacco the Jets' starter. “Our doctors, second opinions, just making sure we did the right thing -- not only by him (but for) the immediate future and long-term.”
It’s the “long-term” that rightfully won out. The only “immediate” reason to play Darnold this week was a feeble one. The Jets obviously need to win, because at 0-4 there is no more room to fail. But so what? Maybe Flacco can settle the offense down and beat the Arizona Cardinals. If not, who cares? At this point, what’s the difference between 0-4 and 0-5?
For the long-term future, though, there was no reason to rush Darnold back. They can’t delude themselves into thinking they can make a run at the expanded playoffs this season. At minimum, they’d need to go 8-4 over the rest of the season, and what have they shown to give anyone a reason to believe they’re capable of that?
What they need to know is this: Were they right about Darnold? Can he overcome the maddening inconsistency and mediocrity of the first four games to show he’s the savior they thought they were drafting in 2018? Can Gase pull that greatness out of him, or do they see enough to at least give another coach a shot at doing it next year?
And the clock is ticking because the Jets are spiraling towards a Top 5 pick in the 2021 draft, and possibly even the first overall pick if things really go wrong. That puts them in position to turn the page on Darnold and draft Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, Ohio State’s Justin Fields, or perhaps another quarterback who vaults into the Top 5 conversation.
But to make a bold move like that, just three years after trading away three second-round picks to move up for Darnold, they really, really, really need to be sure.
That’s why they need Darnold fully healthy. Of course, they may not have even had a choice this week anyway. Though Darnold returned to the game on Thursday night and played through the pain of his shoulder injury, it sounds like things got worse the next morning when the adrenaline wore off.
“He’s in a lot of pain,” Gase said. “That’s what it is. He can only raise his arm a certain degree. To go out and practice, it would be very difficult for him right now.”
Could he, or would he have done it if the Jets were 4-0? What if this were later in the season and the playoffs were in reach? Who knows? But for these Jets, none of that matters. The right call is the one they made. And they need to keep making it, even if he misses the next game, too. Don’t make Darnold push through the pain. Let him rest and heal, even if it takes a few weeks. Don’t let him throw another football until he feels 100 percent.
Then, and only then, can they go about the important business of deciding about his future and whether he truly is the franchise savior. They’d learn nothing if they’re forced to evaluate Darnold at less than full strength.
And that’s what this season has been reduced to: The evaluation of Sam Darnold. That’s all that really matters now.