EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The player Sam Darnold grew up watching and studying -- Aaron Rodgers -- was no longer a digital image on his phone or laptop. He was real, in the flesh, standing on the opposite sideline Sunday at MetLife Stadium. This was a unique opportunity to compete against the athlete who inspired him as a young beach kid in Southern California.
The New York Jets rookie did more than just show up; he damn near beat Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers. Darnold made two mistakes in crunch time -- one mental, one physical -- but his overall performance in the Jets' 44-38 overtime loss was filled with wow moments and uncommon poise. Darnold continued his late-season ascent, becoming the youngest quarterback in NFL history to pass for 300 yards and three touchdowns in a game.
"He played great," Rodgers said. "He played really, really good. I like his game. He threw the ball really well, but he's moving around, making those throws on the run. I think he has a bright future."
Two themes were reinforced in the Jets' loss:
They need to start fresh in 2019 with a new coach. Under Todd Bowles, they play their rear ends off, but they invariably find a way to lose. On Sunday they were an undisciplined mess, committing 16 penalties for a franchise-record 172 yards and blowing a 15-point lead in the fourth quarter. Week after week, the Jets (4-11) prove it's time for a change at the top.
The next coach will walk into a promising quarterback situation thanks to Darnold, who has posted a league-best 81.4 Total QBR over the past three games. No longer a confused rookie with a mounting interception total, Darnold has morphed into an efficient 21-year-old who has cut down on his turnovers (86 attempts without a pick) and has injected life into the Jets' offense.
He provides hope for a wayward franchise.
"I truly believe this kid is going to be a star," wide receiver Jermaine Kearse said.
Darnold certainly wasn't intimidated by Rodgers, as he threw two touchdowns to running back Elijah McGuire (4 and 20 yards) and one to rookie tight end Chris Herndon (5 yards). Instead of limiting Darnold, as they had done in previous games, the coaching staff allowed the offense to run through him. If it weren't for the late-game choke job by the defense, this would've been Darnold's first victory with more than 30 pass attempts. He completed 24 of 35 passes for a career-high 341 yards.
Each week, he shows a little more than the previous one. This time, Darnold was razor sharp on slants and other in-cutting routes. Early in the year, he wasn't consistently efficient on over-the-middle throws, so this represented nice progress. He saw the field, didn't panic under pressure and showed his arm strength on deep outs to the sideline, even when rolling to his left.
Another positive was his effectiveness on play-action -- he was 11-for-12 for 190 yards and a touchdown. Darnold admitted this was an adjustment for him because, as a college quarterback in the shotgun, he didn't have to turn his back to the defense while executing play-action fakes.
"I feel like I've improved a lot in that area," he said.
Darnold has been a different quarterback since returning from his four-week foot injury. He graduated from freshman algebra to advanced-placement calculus.
"When he was away, with his time off, he didn't let his mind atrophy," backup Josh McCown said in a quiet corner of the locker room. "He continued to grow; he continued to stay in the present. He was involved in every meeting and he was involved on the sideline in every game. You're seeing the results right now."
Darnold wasn't perfect. On a third-and-19 with 3:24 remaining in regulation, he dirted a screen pass instead of falling down and taking the sack. The Jets were ahead by five points and needed to milk the clock, especially since the Packers had no timeouts left. Later, with 32 seconds left, he missed an open Deontay Burnett in the end zone for what would've been a 15-yard touchdown --- a potential game winner.
"You always want to go out there and make a mark on the game and try to score, but I had my chance late in the fourth quarter and just missed [Burnett] by a little bit," he said.
Darnold needed those two plays to beat Rodgers, who countered by doing Rodgers things in the fourth quarter and overtime. He passed for 442 yards and two touchdowns, ran for another two and played like the all-planet quarterback he is. The Jets were hypnotized by the Packers star, as if they were lulled into a funk by watching an endless loop of his car-insurance commercials.
There's only one Rodgers. Maybe Darnold can be on that level some day. For that to happen, the organization needs to reinvent itself. And that will start in seven days.