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After missing two games with an injured throwing shoulder, quarterback Sam Darnold will start for the winless New York Jets on Sunday — their first game with the entire group of starting skill-position players.
“I think these guys want to see what maybe it could’ve been from the beginning of the year,” coach Adam Gase said Friday while confirming that Darnold is poised to face the Miami Dolphins at MetLife Stadium.
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Darnold, who suffered an AC joint sprain in Week 4, has impressed the coaches this week in practice. Gase spoke confidently of Darnold’s arm strength, saying only a setback in Friday’s practice would keep him out of the lineup.
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“Which I don’t anticipate,” Gase said. “Everything looks good to go.”
Speaking after practice, Darnold confirmed there were no issues in practice, saying he “felt really good” the last two days.
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“Now that I can feel good and really trust myself when I’m out there 100%, I think that’s the biggest thing for me mentally,” he said. “I can’t wait to go out there and play Sunday.”
Darnold has missed four of the past six games because he aggravated the injury in Week 8 against the Kansas City Chiefs. He tried to play the next week against the New England Patriots, but he didn’t feel right and pulled himself out of practice.
“The way he’s throwing the football right now, you can tell there’s a big difference as far as the control, the velocity, his change-of-pace on throws,” Gase said. “It looks a lot different than the last time he tried to make a run at trying to play in a game.”
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Earlier in the week, Darnold said his only concern was how his shoulder would respond to contact. After two days of full participation in practice, he evidently feels the shoulder is strong enough to absorb a hit.
“I think it’s going to be fine,” he said. “The doctors are saying I’ll be fine, so I’m trusting what they say.”
Unlike in his previous six starts this season, Darnold will have his full complement of playmakers. Wide receivers Breshad Perriman, Jamison Crowder and rookie Denzel Mims, all hurt at various points, are healthy. With Joe Flacco at quarterback, the passing game showed signs of improvement the past two games.
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Now it’s Darnold’s turn. Gase said he’s “fired up” to see how he looks. The Jets (0-10) rank last in scoring and total yards.
“Those guys have producing the last couple of weeks,” Darnold said. “It’s going to be nice playing with those guys.”
This is an important stretch for Darnold, whose future appears uncertain. The Jets could land the first or second pick in the 2021 NFL draft, which means they will have a quarterback decision to make. Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence is the presumptive top pick.
Darnold, the No. 3 pick in 2018, has struggled this season. He’s ranked 30th out of 30 qualifying quarterbacks in Total QBR with a career-low 39.5.
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He has struggled against the Dolphins — a 1-4 record, with four touchdown passes and eight interceptions.
Point-blank question to New York Jets coach Adam Gase: What’s the upside to playing Sam Darnold with a throwing shoulder that still might not be 100%?
“I’d like to see him play with our starting wide receivers,” Gase said matter-of-factly. “That would be probably my No. 1 thing I’d love to see.” Later, he added, “I do think there are some good pieces around him to get a good evaluation of kind of improvement.”
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Translation: If the Jets are saying they still need a few more games to form an evaluation of Darnold, who has started 32 games (including 19 for this regime), it means they’re not sold on him as their long-term answer at quarterback.
It’s audition time, folks. Actually, it’s an audition/showcase, six games against five playoff contenders with ramifications that will be felt for years. It’s the only drama remaining in the franchise’s worst season ever.
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After a 19-day layoff, Darnold could return to practice Wednesday and start Sunday against the Miami Dolphins. “Hopeful” is the best way to describe the mood. It should be a simple decision, but things are seldom easy for the winless Jets (0-10). There are plots and sub-plots, risk-reward considerations and potentially dire consequences. The ultimate irony is that a triumphant return by Darnold, once considered the savior, might not be in the best long-term interest of the franchise.
Yeah, this is a strange one.
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A closer look at how the decision could impact each side:
Darnold wants in because he’s a competitor and his job is to play quarterback for the Jets. There could be more to it. For the first time in his life, on any level, his job security is being questioned. He’s probably tired of standing on the sideline and watching someone else determine his fate. When he plays, he’s in control because wins help his chances of returning in 2021. More losses could lead to his ouster.
The Jets probably will trade Darnold if they land the first pick in the 2021 draft, which would allow them to take presumptive No. 1 pick Trevor Lawrence of Clemson — assuming he declares. If they win two or three games, the Jets likely would wind up with a pick in the three to nine range, which changes everything. Unless they trade up for a quarterback, they’d stick with Darnold and try to build around him.
On a personal level, Darnold wants to right his season, which has fallen way short of expectations. Expected to improve in his second year under Gase, Darnold has regressed to the point where he’s 30th out 30 qualifying quarterbacks in QBR (39.5) and near the bottom in most of the major statistical categories. He has gone three straight games without a touchdown pass, the byproduct of a bad offense and his own shaky play.
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In his first two seasons, Darnold played his best ball late in the year, which no doubt fuels hope he can do it again. The chance to play for the first time with the three starting wide receivers, finally healthy at the same time, also provides a flicker of optimism. But that’s not his primary motivation for getting back on the field.
“I just want to be out there, regardless of that,” Darnold said. “I’m always going to be eager to go out there and play football.”
If he starts, Darnold will be tested by the Dolphins (6-4) because of their propensity to blitz and play man-to-man coverage, both of which give him trouble. He’s 1-3 against the Dolphins, with four touchdowns and eight interceptions.
To be blunt, the risk of playing Darnold is greater than the potential reward. If he reinjures his shoulder, it will depress his market value, which means he won’t fetch as much in a trade. He already has missed 10 games in three years. One more setback, and he will be stamped “injury-prone.” That’s a tough label to peel off, even if Darnold is confident there’s no risk of long-term damage.
Not surprisingly, the Jets believe this a no-lose situation. If Darnold plays well down the stretch and they win a couple of games, it solidifies his position for 2021, everybody feels good and they still have a high draft pick to address a major need. If he fizzles and the team continues to lose, it sets the stage for Lawrence, who is generally regarded as a generational prospect. If he plays reasonably well but the team still lands the No. 1 pick, the Jets can pick Lawrence and get a nice return for Darnold.
General manager Joe Douglas is on record as saying Darnold is their quarterback of the future, but the future changes quickly in the NFL. Douglas didn’t draft him, and he’s not married to him. It would be very difficult to pass on Lawrence, no matter how Darnold finishes out the season.
That’s why the Jets have more to lose than gain.
Gase wants Darnold in the lineup ASAP because he gives him the best chance to win, and Gase is clinging to the belief he can save his job with a miracle finish. This is a coach who won six of his final eight games last season, so he probably he thinks he can do it again, especially with his starting quarterback finally hooking up with his best receivers. Breshad Perriman, Jamison Crowder and rookie Denzel Mims have actually resembled a decent unit over the past two games.
“I know he’s champing at the bit to go out there and play with these wide receivers, for sure,” Gase said.