After a two-game absence because of a shoulder injury, Sam Darnold is in line to return to the lineup on Sunday when the Jets (0-6) host the Bills (4-2) at MetLife Stadium. It's been three weeks since Darnold competed in game action, but he led the first-team offense in practice this week and didn't feel worse for the wear.
"Sam things are trending in the right direction," Head Coach Adam Gase said before Friday's workout. "Hopefully, barring any setbacks, we'll get him going this Sunday."
Darnold told reporters on Thursday: "I feel good. The last two days have gone really well. I've thrown the ball and I've recovered pretty quick. Obviously, it's still to be determined what's going to happen Sunday as to who is starting, but I've felt really good the last couple of days."
With Darnold out, backup Joe Flacco wasn't able to catapult the Jets' offense out of its doldrums. The Jets totaled 10 points in losses to the Cardinals and the Dolphins, and the Green & White were shutout last Sunday in Miami while converting on 2-of-17 third downs. Flacco was frequently under duress in South Florida and the Jets need to get better across the board to jumpstart a unit that ranks 32nd in scoring (12.5 Pts/G), and third-down (30.2-%) and red-zone efficiency (23.1%). The Green & White's lack of production runs much deeper than inconsistent play at QB.
"He's able to create when some things aren't going the right way with his legs," Gase said of Darnold, whose 46-yard scoring run against the Broncos in Week 4 was the longest rush by a QB in franchise history. "It just gives them another element they have to worry about. That's the biggest difference between the two guys is the movement as far as that threat of being able to have the explosive run at some point or extend the third down if the protection isn't there."
The Jets have to evaluate the younger players on the roster and, at the same time, do everything they can to win games. Good cultures are created by competitive environments that lead to success on game days. While Darnold is 11-19 as an NFL starter, the Jets are 0-8 in games quarterbacked by his backups from 2018-20.
"I don't think I've played well enough to win,' Darnold said of his play this season. "That's just shooting it straight. We haven't won any games yet, so obviously I haven't played well enough."
A quarter of any season doesn't provide enough time to properly evaluate a player and his progress or decline. Over his first four starts, Darnold connected on 59.4% of his passes for 792 yards with 3 TDs and 4 INTs. But look beyond the numbers in that quartet of games and you find that slot wideout Jamison Crowder, who torched the Bills in Week 1 for 7 catches, 115 yards and a 69-yard TD, didn't play in Games 2 and 3 because of a tight hamstring. Breshad Perriman, a starter on the outside, went out with an ankle injury against the 49ers, and didn't suit up against the Colts and the Broncos. Rookie Denzel Mims, an expected starter across the way, didn't practice once in training camp and has yet to play in an NFL game. Rookie LT Mekhi Becton, already the team's most impressive offensive lineman, left both Games 3 and 4 with a shoulder injury. The Jets have yet to get TE Chris Herndon going in his third season; and RB Le'Veon Bell, who missed half of the opener plus Games 2-4 with a hamstring injury, was recently released.
"I look at it as how many games he had with the group we put together to start the season," Gase said. "We still haven't seen what it looks like with the group we drafted and signed, where it was Mims, Perriman and Crowder and Herndon. We haven't seen that yet."
But for the first time in 2020, it's possible that Darnold will operate against the Bills behind a line that includes Becton and the Jets' top three receivers in the lineup at the same time. But even if that happens, patience will be required. The reality is Darnold could be shaking off some rust,; Mims remains raw after a handful of NFL practices; and Crowder, the team's most productive player, is still feeling residual hamstring tightness and was listed as doubtful.
"It seems like every other week, an important key to the offensive scheme is either hurt or injured," said veteran OLB Jordan Jenkins. "And as soon as one guy comes back, another guy goes down. I'm excited. … It's good to see guys you've never really played with, never really worked with — it's good to see those guys out there making plays. I heard a lot about Perriman, I've heard a lot about Mims, but now I'm actually seeing them make plays."
While Perriman had 4 catches for 62 yards receiving against the Dolphins, Mims' NFL debut could be in sight and Darnold will be distributing the ball if his shoulder continues to respond positively. As the outside noise continues to grow about the Jets' draft position for 2021, Darnold remains focused on one thing.
"We're just worried about getting a win," he said. "We have to worry about this week and Buffalo. They're a really good team, so we're worried about this week."
See the Top Images from Practice Leading Up to the Home Game Against Buffalo