Ghosts to ghastly: Sam Darnold's three-game slump cause for concern

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- CEO Christopher Johnson was dressed in a dark suit, fitting for the occasion. He stood in the entrance to the New York Jets' locker room, waiting to shake the players' hands as they entered after the game -- his weekly ritual, win or lose. Before they arrived, he stood with hands on hips, looking positively ticked off as echoes of "Fire Gase!" were heard in the distance from an angry mob of Jets fans that waited for their disgraced heroes as they trudged off the field Sunday at Hard Rock Stadium.

Coach Adam Gase is 1-7 in his first season, hitting rock bottom with a 26-18 loss to the previously winless Miami Dolphins. The record is an eyesore on his résumé, but the most disturbing part of this rotten season is how his pet project -- quarterback Sam Darnold -- has regressed. He has been badly outplayed by Tom Brady (no shame in that), rookie Gardner Minshew and journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick in a span of three weeks, raising questions the organization never thought it would have to confront.

What's wrong with Darnold? How can they get him fixed?

Darnold's three-game slide, which began with the "ghosts" game against the New England Patriots, has produced ghastly numbers -- 59-for-101, 564 yards, three touchdowns, eight interceptions and a 50.9 passer rating. The Darnold-led offense has generated only two touchdown drives in that span, both game-opening possessions. After that, it falls apart.

Gase, fiercely protective of his quarterback, refused to acknowledge the obvious.

"I don't know if I can say that," Gase said, when asked if Darnold has taken steps backward. "I've got to go back and watch this thing and really diagnose kind of what happened throughout the game. Like the last game, there were a lot of good things; it was just two or three bad plays. Just for a quarterback sometimes, when you have a bad play, it's a turnover. I've got to go back and look at this thing and kind of see what was going on."

Darnold was trending upward after his brilliant performance against the Dallas Cowboys, but the lack of pass protection has caused him to develop bad habits -- happy feet, back-foot throws and bad decisions under pressure. He looks like he did in his final season at USC in 2017, when he was pressing and his turnover count soared. He has terrific instincts for the position, but he can get off track when he starts playing outside his comfort zone.

In his past 31 games, counting his final year in college, Darnold has 36 interceptions.

"My confidence is never going to waver," he said. "I'm very, very confident in myself and this team. We have flashes of going down there and scoring. We just have to do it every single drive."

Sunday's low point came late in the second quarter, when he was intercepted near the goal line on a sprint out to the left. His No. 1 read was wide receiver Jamison Crowder, but he got knocked off his route by teammate Robby Anderson, who was re-routed by the defensive back. Instead of sailing the ball out of bounds, Darnold waited too long. By the time he tried to throw it away, linebacker Raekwon McMillan was draped on him and the ball came out like a bar of soap -- Darnold's fifth red zone interception since 2018, most in the league.

"Once I saw everything was crowded, I just tried to throw it away," Darnold said. "It didn't work out."

Darnold (27-for-39, 260 yards) struggled against a secondary that was missing its two best players, cornerback Xavien Howard and safety Reshad Jones. Later, there was a miscommunication on an errant shotgun snap that resulted in a safety. Darnold, protecting his teammates, refused to reveal the culprit. Gase has seen that play before; it was eerily similar to Peyton Manning in Super Bowl XLVIII when Gase was the Denver Broncos' offensive coordinator.

This week, the spotlight will intensify on Darnold because the next opponent is the New York Giants. That means a week of comparisons to Daniel Jones, who has outplayed Darnold even though he's only a rookie.

Gase and Darnold are joined at the hip. If Darnold continues to spiral, Gase continues to spiral. The coach needs to get his star pupil on track, or it will continue to get ugly.

"We're 1-7," Gase said. "Everybody feels like crap."