EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The New York Jets lost another game, hardly headline news in their disappointing season, but they came away from Loss No. 10 with a major reason to be encouraged.
Rookie quarterback Sam Darnold, the present and future of the franchise, continued his late-season rally Saturday night with perhaps his best performance of the year.
Playing without leading rusher Isaiah Crowell and leading receiver Quincy Enunwa — both injured — Darnold sparked the Jets’ under-manned offense, throwing two touchdown passes and creating plays with his athleticism in their 29-22 loss to the Houston Texans at MetLife Stadium.
At times, it looked as if Darnold was out there by himself. The Jets (4-10) aren’t stacked with playmakers, but there they were, pushing J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and the rest of the playoff-bound Texans to the 60th minute.
Rebounding from a midseason slump, followed by a three-game foot injury, Darnold, a former USC star, has looked like a different quarterback the past two weeks. On Saturday, he orchestrated touchdown drives of 83, 60 and 73 yards against one of the best front sevens in the NFL.
He completed passes to nine receivers, buying time on some plays by rolling outside the pocket. A 17-yard scramble in the fourth quarter set up a 2-yard touchdown run by Elijah McGuire, who received a giant push from the entire offensive line. It gave the Jets a 22-19 lead with five minutes remaining.
Although the Jets ultimately lost, allowing a go-ahead 75-yard touchdown drive, Darnold’s performance provided some hope in the big picture. He completed 24 of 38 passes for 253 yards. Most important, he didn’t add to his league-leading interception total (15).
For the second week in a row, Darnold and wide receiver Robby Anderson connected on an off-script touchdown. On a first down from the Houston 5-yard line, Darnold stepped up in the pocket and found Anderson in the back of the end zone. It wasn’t as spectacular as last week’s 47-yard scramble that preceded a 7-yard touchdown pass to Anderson, but the two young players once again demonstrated on-field chemistry, something that was non-existent early in the season.
This time, Darnold scrambled 10.1 yards, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, and Anderson improvised in the end zone to get open.
On the next series, Darnold connected with seldom-used receiver Andre Roberts, who baited his defender with a slant-and-go. Darnold delivered a pinpoint pass into the corner of the end zone, sending a surge of electricity through the team and the stadium.
Unfortunately for the Jets, it didn’t get through to kicker Jason Myers, who missed two extra points. It also didn’t get through to the secondary, which had no answer for Texans star receiver DeAndre Hopkins.
But in the big picture, Darnold showed Saturday night why the Jets have big hopes for his future.
“I do think about where I’m going to be in a year or two from now, and I’m really excited,” Darnold said the other day. “I’m really excited where I can go from here. I’m really optimistic about the future and what it holds.”