Sunday in New England marks the merciful end to the Jets’ 2020 season.
It’s expected to be the end for their head coach Adam Gase, who’s likely to be fired before breakfast time Monday after two unsatisfactory seasons.
The roster as we know it now will be vastly different in 2021. The biggest question is whether the quarterback will be different.
Before the Jets started winning games — two in a row entering Sunday’s season finale against the Patriots — to ruin their chances at the No. 1-overall draft pick and a chance at Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, that answer seemed somewhat clear. It would have been a major upset if the Jets didn’t draft Lawrence and move on from Darnold after three inconsistent seasons (13-24 record, 44 touchdowns, 37 interceptions).
But Lawrence is no longer a part of the conversation for the Jets, who own the second pick — presumably after the Jaguars draft Lawrence with the top pick.
So, now what to do with Darnold?
This is what: Unless Jets general manager Joe Douglas has the same kind of can’t-miss conviction about Ohio State’s Justin Fields, BYU’s Zach Wilson, North Dakota State’s Trey Lance or another draft-eligible quarterback in April that he might have had about Lawrence, he should keep Darnold and build a proper team around him.
Douglas has nine picks in the ’21 draft and close to $100 million in salary-cap room. If he cannot put enough skill-position players around Darnold and a sound offensive line in front of him, then Douglas isn’t worthy of the six-year contract that Jets CEO Christopher Johnson gave him.
If the worst thing that happens to the Jets’ quarterback position is having Darnold back next season with a stronger supporting cast around him, that’s not a bad thing.
The debate around Darnold has raged for the past two seasons and it’s centered around this: Is his inconsistency a result of his own shortcomings or the shortcomings of those around him?
The answer, of course, is a combination of the two. The question is which is weighted more heavily?
Darnold, regardless of how bad his offensive line has been and how limited his skill-position talent has been, cannot be completely exonerated for his too many turnovers and questionable decision making.
“It’s about consistency and it’s also about consistency with the guys around you,’’ Gase said Thursday, convinced Darnold has what it takes to lead the Jets forward with a competent cast around him. “When you’re a young player, you need to have a nucleus of core guys around you that you can grow with, that can help you develop as a player.’’
Darnold has gone the past three games without turning the ball over once, which is a significant step. It’s no coincidence that he’s had his top three receivers — Jamison Crowder, Breshad Perriman and Denzel Mims — back from injuries in those games.
“The quarterback position takes a huge chunk of the blame for everything [bad] that happens and a lot of times it’s not on them,’’ Gase said. “Do I think we need to get better in certain spots with [Darnold]? Yeah, absolutely. Do I think he’s been to the point where it should all fall on him? No, I don’t.
“If we can get some things cleaned up, it would really help him in decision making, accuracy, timing. But we need to have consistency as far as with the guys that are out there with him.’’
The counterargument, though, is that Darnold hasn’t elevated those around him the way the elite quarterbacks are able to do despite the deficiencies of their supporting cast (see: Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers).
“The only thing I was ask you are what quarterbacks are you talking about that haven’t had a good cast around them?’’ Gase said. “We can go around in circles on that one.’’
Those circles include Cincinnati, where rookie Joe Burrow, the No. 1 overall pick last spring, threw for 300 or more yards in five of his 10 starts before a torn ACL ended his rookie season. But he was throwing to a much better receiving corps than the Jets have — Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd and A.J. Green.
They include L.A., where Justin Herbert has thrown for 300 or more yards in his 14 starts for the Chargers, but he’s throwing to Keenan Allen, Mike Williams and Hunter Henry, one of the best tight ends in the game.
Darnold has completed passes to nine different receivers and six different running backs this season. Some of those players are not of NFL caliber.
So, should Darnold stay with a better cast around him or should the Jets give up on a 23-year-old who they spent a No. 3-overall draft pick on just three years ago?
“I know we all like to think of hypotheticals and what-ifs, but I’m a Jet right now and I love being here,’’ Darnold said Thursday. “I absolutely believe my best days are ahead.’’
For his sake and that of the Jets, hopefully those days come while he’s wearing green and white.