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The shadow of Sam Darnold looms as Zach Wilson shows progress for Jets

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The shadow of Sam Darnold looms as Zach Wilson shows progress for Jets

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The Jets blew a 10-point lead and fell to the Dolphins 31-24 on Sunday at Hard Rock Stadium. Here are some thoughts and observations from the game:

1. Yes, you want wins. You’re tired of watching the Jets lose. We get it. But this final stretch of games was never really about winning. It was about progress and the Jets showed some on Sunday.

Once it was clear the Jets were heading for another double-digit loss campaign, the thing to watch became how much progress they could show and not what the scoreboard said. The Jets looked like a real NFL team for a while on Sunday. That is a step forward from where they were two months ago when they lost 54-13 to the Patriots and gave up 45 points in back-to-back weeks to the Colts and Bills.

Is it good enough? Of course not.

But let’s be realistic about where the Jets are at. This is a team with a roster that is inferior to nearly every team they play (maybe not this week against the Jaguars). From the start of this season, the Jets have stressed development with their young players.

Zach Wilson throws a pass for the Jets against the Dolphins
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Being tied in the fourth quarter against a team that is playing well is what you wanted to see from the Jets all season. They may not pull out the win but at least they’d fight. That fight has not been apparent for too many of the losses this season. Seven of their 11 losses have come by double digits. They looked non-competitive in too many of these games.

The Jets now must figure out how to put four quarters together. They have good stretches but have not played a full game yet. That is what first-year coach Robert Saleh must get out of his team this week against the Jaguars. Play a 60-minute game and beat a team you should be better than. This is the last realistic chance the Jets have to win. Now, anything can happen in the NFL (see Lions over Cardinals Sunday) but the final two games for the Jets are against the Buccaneers and Bills, two teams that should beat the Jets easily.

Zach Wilson gets sacked against the Dolphins
Zach Wilson gets sacked against the Dolphins
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Wins and losses are what is most important and the Jets have fallen short again this season. But there were signs of progress on Sunday. That counts for something.

2. While we’re speaking of progress, the development of rookie quarterback Zach Wilson is at the top of that list. Wilson showed some good signs on Sunday but not enough to make you feel confident that he is the answer for the Jets.

Here is the difficulty when evaluating Wilson: the shadow of Sam Darnold still looms large. For three years, we talked about Darnold needing more time and better weapons around him. It feels like we’re going down the same path with Wilson. Just because Darnold ultimately failed does not mean the arguments for Wilson to get more time and a better supporting cast are invalid.

The Dolphins have a very good defense with very good coaching. They have made lots of quarterbacks look bad. On Sunday, Wilson started off hot, and then the Dolphins made adjustments to slow him down. Give the Dolphins credit for that.

The other problem is the wide receivers Wilson is currently working with. Elijah Moore and Corey Davis are the Jets’ best receivers. Both are injured. That leaves Wilson with a crew of Keelan Cole, Jamison Crowder, Denzel Mims, Braxton Berrios and Vyncint Smith. All of them are complementary receivers at best and some don’t even deserve to be playing. When the Dolphins played man-to-man, the Jets receivers could not get open. That led to protection issues in the second half with Wilson having to hold the ball. It is hard to play quarterback when no one is getting open.

This is not to excuse Wilson. He needs to improve. But there were some good signs on Sunday. Wilson made a few nice improvisational plays, his trademark at BYU. Wilson does not look as confused as he did earlier in the season. His issues do not appear to be with reading defenses and that is a major positive. Too often with Darnold it appeared he did not know what he was looking at.

Sam Darnold is on the Panthers now
Sam Darnold is on the Panthers now
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It looked like things slowed down a bit for Wilson on Sunday, too. He did not look as sped up as he did against the Saints. Wilson has plenty of things to work on but it is too soon to panic about him.

3. Jets GM Joe Douglas has a lot of big decisions to make this offseason. One of the most interesting is what to do with the offensive line. This year’s group has played well at times but the unit still needs to be improved.

Douglas needs to enter the offseason looking to upgrade at least one position and maybe two. Geroge Fant has played well at left tackle this season and deserves to return in 2022. The Jets must decide if Mekhi Becton slides back in at left tackle when he’s healthy or if they move Becton to right tackle and keep Fant on the left side. Alijah Vera-Tucker looks like a keeper at left guard. Connor McGovern has played decently this season at center. Douglas needs to find an interior lineman and if that lineman is a center, they can move McGovern to right guard. If the lineman is a guard, they can live with McGovern at center for another year.

It is doubtful the Jets will use another first-round pick on an O lineman after using first-rounders on Becton and Vera-Tucker in the last two years, but O line remains a priority for Douglas this offseason.

Brandin Echols celebrates his pick-six
Brandin Echols celebrates his pick-six
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4. The Jets are 3-11, meaning they have lost at least 11 games in five of the last six seasons. It is an incredible run of bad football. If you extend it back to 2014, it is six of the last eight seasons. Think about this. The Jets have had six of those 11-loss seasons in the last eight years. From 1960-2013, they only had 10 of those seasons and the only time they had 11-loss seasons in consecutive years was 1975-77 and 1995-96. These are indeed the dark days for the franchise.

Revealing stat

Zach Wilson went 5-for-5 on the first drive of the game. He went 8-for-18 in the rest of the game.

Surprising snap count

DE Ronnie Blair played 40 of 71 snaps. It was a surprise that the Jets played Blair, who is on the practice squad, over Shaq Lawson, who was inactive for the game.

Game ball

Brandin Echols gave the Jets a shot in the fourth quarter with his pick-six against Tua Tagovailoa. Echols has played pretty well as a rookie and has been a nice surprise for the Jets. 

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Sports world reacts to John Madden’s death

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Sports world reacts to John Madden’s death

Legendary NFL coach and broadcaster John Madden died Tuesday morning at 85, the NFL announced. News of the football icon’s passing hit Twitter on Tuesday evening, and athletes, coaches and broadcasters from across the sports world reacted.

Fellow broadcasting legend Dick Vitale, who is currently battling cancer, called Madden “the greatest analyst of all time of any sport” in his Twitter tribute.

Former Yankees pitcher and notable Raiders fan CC Sabathia said “your legacy will live forever.” Madden coached the then-Oakland Raiders from 1969-78, a couple of years before Sabathia, a Vallejo, California native, was born. Lakers star LeBron James had similar words about Madden’s lasting legacy, adding an infinity emoji.

Former tennis star and social justice activist Billie Jean King recalled meeting Madden as a “privilege.”

Radio voice of the Rangers Kenny Albert, a five-sport broadcaster who’s been with FOX Sports since its inception in 1994, shared a photo circa 26 years ago to remember Madden.

ESPN’s Bomani Jones took a bit of a shot at current color commentators, noting that Madden “set an unreachable standard.”

Frank Caliendo, who’s made a career out of impersonations, including one for Madden, said he was surprised how emotional he felt.

Several football players, and others, including Saints running back Mark Ingram II and former Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant, credited Madden with being part of the reason why they love football.

Rams wide receiver and NFL MVP contender Cooper Kupp quote the late coach in his tribute: “The road to Easy Street goes through the sewer.”

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Miles McBride’s Knicks role will lessen with Kemba Walker’s resurgence

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Miles McBride’s Knicks role will lessen with Kemba Walker’s resurgence

MINNEAPOLIS — The Knicks got back another body in rookie point guard Miles McBride, who was cleared from protocols Tuesday and rejoined the team in Minnesota.

But there is no longer any hype for the rookie’s return. Kemba Walker is back as the starting point guard and coming off winning Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors with four standout games, including his Christmas Day spectacular. The Knicks have gone 2-2 since Walker regained the starting job.

“It’s great,’’ coach Tom Thibodeau said. “He had a great week. He’s playing great basketball. The team winning helps him get recognized and he was a big part of driving that winning. It’s great for the team.’’

McBride was also spectacular in his last outing before getting COVID-19, when he played the entire second half Dec. 16 in Houston and seemingly earned a spot in the rotation. In fact, McBride had strung together two decent outings before he was ruled out. But things have changed since his emergence and McBride is likely back to being a bit player.

Without a practice, McBride wasn’t even expected to see time when the Knicks faced the Timberwolves to kick off a four-game road trip.

Miles McBride
NBAE via Getty Images

Of course, with Walker’s arthritic knee, anything is possible. The Knicks play Detroit on Wednesday in a back-to-back, so it’s uncertain whether Walker will complete both contests. In addition, Immanuel Quickley is out of COVID-19 protocols but Thibodeau wasn’t sure he was ready for meaningful minutes.

That left Walker against the depleted Timberwolves, who were missing their three top players (Anthony Edwards, Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell), all because of COVID-19 .

Kemba Walker
Kemba Walker
USA TODAY Sports

When McBride got sidelined by the virus and Derrick Rose needed ankle surgery, Walker was resurrected by Thibodeau and it’s been a stunning comeback story.

Though Thibodeau has clear reservations about Walker based on his nine-game banishment due to his defensive malaise as an undersized point guard, he admitted after the Christmas Day triple-double against Atlanta that Walker is playing “much more aggressive.”

Walker’s triple-double that featured 10 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds was a lot different than his prior outing, when he scored 44 points against Washington.

“I thought his passing was terrific,’’ Thibodeau said before the Knicks resumed their schedule.

“Kemba had control of the game. The game tells you what to do. That’s what I loved about the way he played. I don’t think he forced anything. They puts size on him and were aggressive in their pick-and-roll coverage. He didn’t fight it. He attacked pressure the way you like to attack pressure. You don’t fight pressure with pressure. Don’t try to split it. Get rid of it, go to the backside. Let the game tell you what to do.’’

The Knicks coach is finally seeing all the elements of what Walker can do. Before his demotion, Walker was nothing more than a no-defense, 3-point shooter whose plus-minus was an abysmal minus-122.

Thibodeau was also concerned about his durability in sitting out two of the three back-to-back sets. The last load management game in Atlanta in late November triggered Thibodeau’s decision.

But now it’s only superlatives from Thibodeau in judging the last four games.

“Sometimes it’s going to be his shooting, sometimes it’s his penetration and getting in the paint to force a collapse and sometimes they’re being aggressive with their traps get rid of the ball quickly,’’ Thibodeau said. “The overall play, his rebounding. When your guards rebound, those are key to fast breaks. The more guard rebounding we get the better we can be. ‘’

The Knicks still have three players in protocols — centers Nerlens Noel and Jericho Sims and the newly infected Wayne Selden. Quickley and Kevin Knox were cleared on Christmas but were held out for conditioning.

No matter. The Knicks go as Kemba goes.

“He’s much more aggressive,’’ Thibodeau said. “That was the challenge. At the beginning of the year he and Evan were two new starters. Sometimes guys are trying to fit in. he’s being very aggressive which is the way we want him to play. Not deferring at all. When he and Julius [Randle] are aggressive like that our team is different.’’

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Bar raises dramatically for Zach Wilson in matchup with Tom Brady, Buccaneers

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Zach Wilson and Tom Brady

When Zach Wilson stares across the MetLife Stadium field at the opposite sideline this Sunday, it won’t be Trevor Lawrence he’ll be looking at as his game-day counterpart.

Lawrence, drafted by Jacksonville one spot before the Jets selected Wilson at No. 2 overall last April, is a contemporary.

This Sunday at MetLife, the Jets rookie quarterback won’t be staring at a contemporary on the other sideline. He’ll be staring at the GOAT.

Tom Brady.

The bar raises dramatically for Wilson and the Jets, who are coming off of their feel-good, get-well win over the woeful Jaguars and Lawrence this past Sunday.

Brady and Buccaneers, who are 11-4, NFC South division champions and seeking to repeat as Super Bowl champions, play the Jets, who are 4-11 and seeking more signs of development from their rookie quarterback.

To say this is a step up in competition for Wilson and the Jets going from Lawrence and the Jags to Brady and the Bucs is as obvious as pointing out that Tampa Bay receiver Antonio Brown has had a few off-the-field incidents during his otherwise stellar NFL career.

There hasn’t been a lot to keep the interest of the Jets fan this season — other than watching Wilson’s development. That took an unfortunate pause for the four games Wilson missed with a knee injury, but he’s been back for five games and has looked like a better quarterback, throwing only two interceptions in those games (none in the last three) since returning from his injury.

The problem, though, is that Wilson hasn’t been producing enough touchdowns, throwing for three of them and rushing for four others in the past five games.

Zach Wilson and Tom Brady
Zach Wilson and Tom Brady
N.Y. Post: Charles Wenzelberg; AP

Baby steps, though.

Wilson was the better quarterback this past Sunday when matched up with Lawrence, who threw for more yards than Wilson did, but Wilson ran for 91 yards, including his electric 52-yard scoring jaunt, and made key throws when he needed them.

Wilson will not win Sunday’s game against Brady and the Bucs throwing for the 102 yards he had against the Jaguars. He and the Jets will need more.

Consider this: Brady enters the game having thrown 37 TD passes and for 4,580 yards this season and averages a league-high 305.2 passing yards per game.

Then this: The Buccaneers average 29.5 points per game this season, second most in the NFL.

And this: Wilson doesn’t have a single 300-yard passing game, averages 183 passing yards per game and has thrown seven TD passes in 11 games.

Seven TD passes is a pedestrian two-game total for Brady.

Wilson and the Jets are playing with house money anyway in what always has been a developmental season, so Sunday against Brady should, at its very least, be a great measuring-stick learning experience for Wilson, who’s studied Brady on tape.

Wilson revealed this month that he watched film of Brady before the Jets played the Eagles on Dec. 5 in an effort to pick up tips on how Brady worked against the Eagles defense when he played them earlier in the season.

“I thought it was really cool to see kind of how he went through his whole process, how he navigated the pocket, different things like that,” Wilson said at the time.

On Sunday, Wilson gets to see that process up close as Brady tries to dissect a Jets defense that has yielded 29.9 points per game this season, the most in the NFL.

That puts an added onus on Wilson to produce on the other side of the ball, because he knows Brady is going to get his. Wilson will likely need to produce four TDs — any way he can — for the Jets to simply remain competitive with the Super Bowl champs.

That’s a lot to ask of a 22-year-old kid who’s produced just 11 TDs in his 11 starts, up against Brady, who’s thrown 618 TD passes and for 83,784 yards in his remarkable career.

It, too, is a lot to ask playing against an aggressive Tampa Bay defense that’s ranked No. 9 in the NFL in points allowed (20.8 per game) and is led by former Jets head coach Todd Bowles, who’d surely like to send a holiday message to his former employer.

If you don’t think Bowles will be blitzing the bejesus out of Wilson, then you probably think Antonio Brown is a living saint.

The good news for the Jets is that Wilson has shown incremental improvements, particularly when it comes to his decision-making and quicker releases on his throws.

“He’s coming along, he’s getting more comfortable, he’s calmer back there,’’ Jets coach Robert Saleh said Monday. “He’s in a great headspace and it’s going to be fun to watch him grow, continue to grow.’’

A big part of that growth will take place this Sunday as he watches the GOAT operate from the opposite sideline at MetLife.

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