Sam Darnold is back. And so is the Jets' offense.
In case anyone needed proof that the problem the last three weeks had been poor quarterback play, the 22-year-old Darnold showed how much a difference even a competent quarterback can make. And he was more than competent. He was outstanding. Playing for the first time since Week 1, he completed 23 of 32 passes for 338 yards with two touchdowns and an interception
It was enough to let the Jets hang on for their first win of the season -- 24-22 over the Dallas Cowboys.
Really, Darnold's presence changed everything for the Jets. Adam Gase looked like a completely different play-caller, freed from having to play everything safe with a quarterback (Luke Falk) who simply couldn't make quick reads. The Jets had three offensive touchdowns, after scoring only two in the first four games. And they had 382 total yards of offense, after totaling just 233 the last two weeks.
Darnold started fast too, completing 7 of 9 passes for 60 yards right out of the gate and leading the Jets to a touchdown on their second possession. He even put aside any worries about his spleen with an early three-yard run up the middle that might have been a touchdown if he hadn't been horse collar tackled from behind.
And he only made one obvious mistake -- in the third quarter, deep in Dallas territory, when the Jets had a chance to put the Cowboys away. He had receiver Jamison Crowder open at the 5, but Darnold threw it behind him and got picked off. That gave the Cowboys some much-needed life (and eventually a chance to tie the game at the very end).
But other than that, Darnold was nearly flawless and about as good as anyone could've expected from someone who was out with mono for the last month.
And he made what might have been the throw of the game after the Cowboys closed to within 21-16 and the Jets were reeling. He started the next drive by stepping up in the pocket and putting a pass right over the defense into the arms of Crowder for a 30-yard gain.
That led to a field goal that put the Jets up by eight with less than three-and-a-half minutes to go.
The Jets held on thanks to their defense, but the story of this game was how the Jets' offense finally looked like what Gase always expected when he was hired. He was finally able to call the game the way he always wanted to.
The difference, and the improvement, was clear. And Darnold had everything to do with it. Here are some more takeaways from the Jets' first win of the year:
- Don't overlook how good the Jets' defense was for most of this game against a potent Cowboys offense. Granted, they were helped by the fact that Dallas was missing both its tackles (Tyron Smith and La'el Collins) and lost receiver Amari Cooper early in the game. They also started to wear down in the fourth quarter. But they made big plays when they needed to, and even did what they had to do on a penalty-plauged final drive (three pass interference calls). The Cowboys scored the touchdown they needed, but the Jets thwarted the two-point conversion with an all-out blitz called by defensive coordinator Gregg Williams that didn't give Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott much of a chance.
- This was the first game in a while where the Jets really showed off the impact that their safety duo of Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye could have. Adams, of course, has been consistently stellar, but injuries have limited Maye. In this game, they were the two most active players on the Jets' defense and a big reason why Prescott never got going and Ezekiel Elliott took so long to have an impact in the game. Maye actually made two of the biggest plays of the game. He deflected a pass at the goal line by diving in front of Tavon Austin with less than a minute to play. And he had tight end Jason Witten all tied up (legally) on what would've been the game-tying two-point conversion.
- What a difference one week, and one quarterback, made for the Jets' offensive line. They shook off their 10-sack nightmare from a week ago and gave up only two in this game. It wasn't a great game by any stretch, and it got worse late when Brandon Shell had to take over at left tackle for the injured Kelvin Beachum (ankle). But the line was certainly helped with Darnold's ability to get rid of the ball quickly and get out of the pocket -- two things Falk didn't do very well at all.
- With speculation heating up around the league that the Jets may be willing to trade defensive lineman Leonard Williams between now and the Oct. 29 trading deadline, here was Williams' stat line in this game: Two tackles. No sacks. He is still sackless on the season. The Jets keep talking him up, insisting they're happy with his play. Increasingly, though, nobody is fooled.
- Jets tight end Chris Herndon always figured to be a big part of the Jets' offense before he was suspended for the first four games of the season. Without him, though, they really haven't utilized the tight end spot. That changed only briefly in this game, during the two-minute drill at the end of the first half. Ryan Griffin, a very underrated offseason addition, caught three passes for 28 yards on that drive, including a nice, bobbling touchdown catch where he showed great concentration to hold onto the ball and reach it over the goal line.
- Crowder predictably reappeared in this game with Darnold's return. Back in Week 1 -- his only game with Darnold -- he had 14 catches for 99 yards. Then he had only eight catches for 50 yards in the next three games. This week, he was a factor again, with six catches for 98 yards, not including a couple more that were called back due to penalties.
- The Jets briefly dusted off running back Bilal Powell for a couple of series to spell Le'Veon Bell -- one drive in each half. He didn't do much, though. He carried once and was targeted once. The Jets again didn't use running back Ty Montgomery much either (0 carries, 3 catches). There were opportunities this time, but clearly Gase wants Bell to carry most of the load.