The old gunslinger tried. He did what he could. He flung the football around MetLife Stadium 45 times, and he flung his 39-year-old body at the Patriots defense a couple of times, sacrificing a few bruises and blisters in the name of eking out a first down or two.
It wasn’t enough, of course. The folks in the NFL love to preach their “On Any Given Sunday” mantra, and we love to eat it right up, but there are some Sundays when you know at 1 o’clock precisely what’s going to happen by 4 o’clock. The only thing you don’t know at the start is the score.
But you sure know the outcome.
Patriots 27, Jets 13 was in the books long before it was in the books. But that didn’t stop Josh McCown from taking his shots, taking his hits, having maybe one last lap in the sun before trading in a helmet for a clipboard full time and forever.
“In tough moments,” McCown said, “it’s about sticking together and being professional.”
And these are tough moments for the Jets. As bad as things have seemed under Todd Bowles, they had never before lost five in a row under him. This one made five in a row, and suddenly you look at the schedule and you realize that could easily double before the season is done.
The Jets gave the portion of the 77,982 who came out to root for them — which often sounded like a decided minority — a few moments to savor: an early 7-0 lead, a couple of bounce-back drives that tied the game at 10-10 and 13-13. That’s nice but hardly satisfying. It’s like giving a hungry man a crouton and a slice of tomato from the salad bar and that’s it.
McCown? He kept slinging. He kept flinging. Knowing the whole way, heart of hearts, that it would all be for naught.
“It sucks,” he said flatly. “It’s not ideal.”
Actually, in one way, it is. This season’s lone requirement was always going to be the development of Sam Darnold, something McCown not only knew but signed up for. As Darnold experienced some slippage at the season’s midpoint, some wondered why he hadn’t been forced to serve an apprenticeship behind McCown. Then, on cue, Darnold’s foot began to bark, he took a seat for a couple of weeks, and McCown was given the reins.
Now we know for sure what we always suspected: The job belongs to the kid. This is no slight to McCown, who has been an invaluable resource for the team and for the rookie, whose professionalism and example will be things Darnold — and those other young Jets wise enough to be paying attention — carry forward in their careers.
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But now, for good, for real, there is again only one thing the Jets need to be about. They need that right foot to heal up in time to play next week in Nashville, and they need to return to the business of keeping Darnold upright and moving him forward. Right now, at 3-8, the season can seem hopeless, can feel helpless, especially when you consider how it opened in Detroit, when you realize they were 3-3 at one point.
“We’ve got to go back to the drawing board,” Jets coach Todd Bowles said, sounding more than ever like a fired coach walking. But he’s right about that: From the start, that drawing board was dominated by No. 14, the kid quarterback in whom the Jets have invested everything. The internship many called for happened accidentally, and it has now run its course. His mentor got good and beat up one last time on the MetLife turf.
The wheel has to get better, and then the wheels must be set in motion. It’s all about Darnold now. Which is why something very important can still be salvaged out of this mudslide of a season. Why it must be salvaged.