By DENNIS WASZAK Jr.
The Associated Press
NEW YORK — This isn’t exactly where the Jets expected to be right now. At least, not this way.
Todd Bowles’ bunch is 1-2 after an embarrassing flop in Cleveland, falling 21-17 on Thursday night to a Browns team that hadn’t won since 2016. Two losses in five days have New York looking for answers and hoping things don’t quickly spiral before the season is even a month old.
“It’s a 24-hour rule and you’ve got to have tough skin,” Bowles said Friday morning. “We’re a tough-minded team and it’s not going to drag. We’ve got a couple of days to get some rest and get some guys back and get healthy and move on to Jacksonville next week — no different from if we had won the ballgame.
“We’ll be fine that way. I think we’re mentally tough.”
Judging from the mistakes, penalties and missed opportunities in the Jets’ losses to Miami last Sunday and then at Cleveland, the team hasn’t backed up its coach.
That assessment will certainly be tested, though. New York’s upcoming schedule includes some tough defenses — at Jacksonville, vs. Denver, vs. Indianapolis, vs. Minnesota and at Chicago — that will be licking their chops at the prospect of facing rookie quarterback Sam Darnold.
“Going in, watching the schedule after he won starting job, I thought this would be his toughest game from a scheme-coverage standpoint because of the things they do on that side of the ball,” Bowles said. “I thought he handled that well.”
It’s not that the No. 3 overall pick has been bad. Darnold hasn’t been particularly great, either.
In the Jets’ two losses, he has one touchdown pass and four interceptions, although the two against Cleveland came late in the game while he was trying to rally New York to a comeback.
“It’s not acceptable the way that I played tonight and I know that, but also take it like a man,” Darnold said after the game. “I feel like I’m responsible for some of the stagnant offense that we had. I just have to play better. That’s really it. I have to find completions and continue to do what I’ve been doing.”
Darnold was 15 of 31 for 169 yards and the two INTs against Cleveland. He has said all the right things, showing the maturity of a veteran. But the 21-year-old face of the franchise is going through the rookie rollercoaster of ups and downs.
“He has a fire within that you really can’t see, but I thought he competed his butt off yesterday,” Bowles said. “I thought yesterday was one of his better ballgames from a mental standpoint and a toughness standpoint and a grit standpoint.”
But Darnold was easily overshadowed in front of a prime-time crowd by Baker Mayfield, the No. 1 overall pick who replaced an injured Tyrod Taylor and energized the Browns while leading them to their first win since Dec. 24, 2016.
While Mayfield was zipping passes all around the field, offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates seemed to play it mostly conservative with Darnold. Bowles thought the offense was “well-balanced,” but added that the Browns’ defense negated some of the Jets’ game plan in the second half.
“I mean, we can run it better, we can protect better, we can run routes better and he can make some decisions better,” Bowles said. “But it’s a team effort. It’s not just Sam. From that standpoint, I’m not saying that people weren’t helping him out. We can do a better job all around helping him out.”
Not committing silly penalties — on both sides of the ball — would be a start.
There was Isaiah Crowell’s touchdown celebration when he pretended to wipe his rear end with the football before firing it into the crowd, resulting in a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
Cornerback Trumaine Johnson had two penalties during one drive, including an unsportsmanlike conduct call on a third-down play when he flipped the ball to Browns receiver Jarvis Landry, and an unnecessary roughness call two plays later.
Also, Mayfield was sacked on a 2-point conversion attempt at the end of the third quarter, but cornerback Morris Claiborne committed a holding penalty. The Browns converted the 2-point try, with Landry throwing to Mayfield, tying the game and shifting the momentum to Cleveland.
“Well, the penalties are definitely on the players,” Bowles said. “I mean, coaches can’t play for them. We understand situations and we know what to do and what not to do. Guys have got to be calmer in certain situations.”
Perhaps the biggest swing came with the Jets leading 14-3 in the third period when Darnold completed a 17-yard pass to Robby Anderson, who then fumbled. The Browns kicked a field goal four plays later, making it a one-score game.
“I know we have character and I know that we’ll fight and I know we have a decent team,” Bowles said. “We’ve just got to cut down and fix some things.”