"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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
(Random thought: Would a coach with a proven quarterback say it the opposite way in the same situation? For instance: "I'd like to see our starting receivers play with him.")
For Gase, he wants to show people he's a better coach than the numbers indicate, that injuries have undermined him. This is why this can't be a Gase decision, it has to be an organizational decision, one that includes checks and balances. The future of the franchise is more important than the won-lost record on Gase's résumé.