BALTIMORE — The ghosts took the night off. Sam Darnold had other things to worry about, most of them wearing dark purple jerseys. In front of him, masses and waves of Baltimore Ravens carrying bad intentions and ill tidings chased, harassed and bothered him, up and down M&T Bank Stadium. They were his immediate concern.
Opposite him was Lamar Jackson, selected by the Ravens 29 picks after he was in the 2018 draft. He will be a problem for Darnold for years to come.
The Jets were huge underdogs Thursday night and so it came as little surprise that the Ravens ransacked them, 42-21, showing off their electric offense and their punishing defense and allowing the Jets — and Darnold — little in the way of breaks or breathing room.
For now, Darnold is every bit the underdog his team is. Jackson has taken the NFL by storm across these past two years and his football team is the darling of the NFL, pushed there because its second-year quarterback is a legitimate MVP candidate. Jackson threw for five touchdowns — the third time this year he’s done that. He was superb.
The Jets are 5-9, guaranteed another losing season, and they are nobody’s darlings right now. Their second-year quarterback is still learning on the job, still plagued by growing pains. He is as far away from an MVP conversation as the Jets are from holding a championship parade in downtown Florham Park. Thursday only emphasized both points.
“We had a lot of good tonight,” Jets coach Adam Gase said when it was over. “We knew we had to play the game a certain way, we couldn’t turn it over. I’m sure there’ll be a lot of things he won’t like when he watches the film that he’ll want to get fixed. When you don’t win you have to find mistakes, you have to clean them up go and go back to work.”
Darnold did have some good, same as his team. There are always moments when you are convinced he is Right There, when he throws a perfect ball or makes a perfect read, when you see the instincts on display. There were two touchdown passes, one that actually brought the Jets within 13-7 in the second quarter (the other came much later, in garbage time).
But there are the other moments. There was an interception late in the first half that prevented the Jets from kicking a gimme field goal that would’ve made it 21-10 at intermission. That was either a poor route or a poor read — or both — but whatever the details it was a classic Darnold pick, coming at precisely the wrong time.
“Just a really bad decision by me,” Darnold conceded. “It [stinks] against any team in the NFL but especially against these guys. I wish I could have played better. That decision wasn’t good. You want to get points in that scenario.”
And there was another inexcusable fumble late in the third quarter, too. That one set the Ravens up for the kill, for Jackson’s third TD pass, a beautiful 24-yarder to the back of the end zone that Marquise Brown gathered in that made it 28-7, and brought loud cheer to the faces and the voices of the 70,545 inside M&T. Darnold was already going down in a heap in a drive-ending sack. Then the ball squirted out. The deflation was visible up and down the Jets sideline.
“We had opportunities,” Gase lamented. “We needed to take better advantage.”
Said Darnold: “If you slip up in the NFL, you get exposed.”
It is Darnold’s dual burdens that every move, every step, every progression, every regression, he has one imposing figure staring over his left shoulder and another peering over his right. As a Jet, he will forever be compared to Joe Namath. And so it is that we can dutifully report, 24 games into his career as a quarterback, Namath was 352-for-727 (48.4 percent) for 4,819 yards (200.8 yards per game), 31 touchdowns against 35 interceptions. The Jets were 10-12-2 in those 24.
Twenty-four games deep into Darnold’s career, the numbers read thusly: 473-for-793 (59.6 percent) for 5,507 yards (229.5 yards per), 34 touchdowns and 27 picks. The Jets are 9-15 in those games. That’s the left shoulder. Jackson — now 39 touchdowns and nine picks for his career — is the right shoulder.
So that’s all Darnold has to live up to. No one ever said it was an easy gig.