FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- The arrival of Sam Darnold gave Jets fans something they had been lacking for years: Hope. And that hope for the future got stronger as the new franchise quarterback got better late in his rookie season.
Now, that hope has become excitement and expectation. Even Darnold admits things are different this season. Even he knows that what he did last season was just the start.
"I think I was in a different place," the 22-year-old said. "Just being a rookie going into my first game, I was just feeling a little bit different. I wasn't nearly as comfortable as I am now."
He's looked more comfortable and more confident all summer, and with good reason. The Jets have a lot of new pieces around him, from offensive-minded coach Adam Gase to dangerous running back Le'Veon Bell to elusive receiver Jamison Crowder. They believe all the pieces are in place. And even though none of them will publicly say "playoffs," they believe their time to arrive as a postseason contender is now.
Are they right? Can Darnold really leap into the ranks of the elite quarterbacks? Will Bell still be one of the NFL's best weapons after a 20-month layoff? Or are there still just enough holes on the roster -- particularly on defense -- to delay the Jets' take off for another year?
Here's a preview of the 2019 Jets:
The Main Theme: Is Darnold everything he was promised to be?
Gase is seriously in love with Darnold, the best young quarterback he's ever had. He has seen legitimate progress in him too, noticing that he's no longer making the mistakes he made a year ago. He sees Darnold as a veteran, capable of running his offense to perfection. There may be nothing he can't do. If everyone's right, the Jets will be good and their future is extremely bright. They just have to be right, which means Darnold can't take a step back.
Most Important Player: QB Sam Darnold
No surprise, and for all the reasons just stated. A franchise quarterback is everything, and it's something the Jets haven't had in a while. Darnold did a lot with far less of a supporting cast last season, which is why hopes are now sky high. He should be beyond the typical rookie struggles. But how far he can leap and whether he can really prove to be an elite quarterback right now, that will tell the tale of this entire Jets season.
Biggest addition: RB Le'Veon Bell
He was perhaps the best running back in the NFL when he last played in 2017, and maybe the most dangerous offensive weapon. He will draw a ton of the focus away from Darnold and be a great safety net for him in the passing game. All of that, of course, is that he's still the player he was. He hasn't been in a game in 20 months, so that remains to be seen.
Biggest subtraction: K Jason Myers (signed with Seattle)
It seemed like a bad move when the Jets didn't bring back their Pro Bowl kicker and let him sign with Seattle. Now it seems like a disaster. They've already had one kicker retire after an awful summer (Chandler Catanzaro) and they cut another after he struggled (Taylor Bertolet). Now they're crossing their fingers that young and untested Kaare Vedvik is better than he looked in two preseason games with the Vikings (1 for 4). There would've been a lot less anxiety here if they had just paid Myers what he deserved.
Under the Radar Star: WR Jamison Crowder
Gase's offense has always featured the slot receiver, either as the No. 1 option on the team or the clutch playmaker. Especially since he doesn't have a true No. 1 receiver here, don't expect that to change. It's why Crowder signed here. Gase sees Crowder as way more than the 60-catch, 800-yard guy he was in Washington. Jarvis Landry was a 100-catch, 1,000-yard receiver out of the slot for Gase in Miami. Put Crowder's projection somewhere in between.
Will the Jets make the playoffs?
The Jets haven't made the playoffs since 2010 -- a drought of eight miserable seasons -- and they feel like they've been trying to rebuild for the last three (through a 14-34 record). No, they're not completely finished with that process yet. And yes, they still have holes. But this is finally the year when all the bills for the fans' patience finally come due.
The playoffs aren't only expected, they are possible. Really, really possible. With a rebuilt offensive line, the addition of Bell and Crowder, and of course Darnold, the Jets should score. Maybe a lot. The bigger question is their defense, which is thin at linebacker and corner and doesn't have obvious pass rushers. But their hope is that the addition of new (and aggressive) defensive coordinator Gregg Williams will fix all that and they'll be a lot better on that side of the ball than many expect.
It won't be perfect or smooth. Don't be shocked if special teams costs them a couple of games. And their schedule is brutal the first six weeks -- which includes two games against the defending champion Patriots. But if they survive that, they've got a chance to make a run in the second half of the season. And they will. Next year is finally here.
Final record? 9-7, AFC wild-card team.