A look at what's happening around the New York Jets:
1. 'Pretty inspiring': Sam Darnold's former high school coach flew across the country last weekend to watch his prized ex-pupil face the Houston Texans. It was Jaime Ortiz's first chance to see Darnold in person as an NFL quarterback, and from his end zone seat, Ortiz witnessed what he saw many times in the fall of 2014 at San Clemente High School in California:
A creative playmaker.
"He has what I call it the 'it' factor," Ortiz said in a phone interview. "It's when everything around him just slows down. For other players, it tends to speed up. I saw how people in the crowd reacted. When he made a play, they just shook their heads. For him, it's just a normal play."
Ortiz and the football-watching world saw a different Darnold in that game -- and in the past two games, actually. Since returning from his four-week foot injury, the rookie has made a conscious effort to improvise if his first and second reads are covered and/or he sees a breakdown in the rushing lanes. Offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates said the coaches have been "encouraging" him to use his legs.
The results: Two of Darnold's past three touchdown passes have come on off-script plays, the kind of stuff that made him a star at the University of Southern California. Darnold acknowledged there's "a fine line," knowing when to scramble and when to play it safe, but he trusts his instincts. So do the coaches.
They've made another subtle tweak on offense, using Darnold in the shotgun more often. In fact, 37 of his 38 attempts last week came from the shotgun formation, according to ESPN Stats & Information data. He is comfortable in the shotgun, which allows him to get a better picture of the defense. Hey, whatever works. Darnold leads the NFL in Total QBR over the past two weeks (82.3), a dramatic increase from his 31.3 QBR in Weeks 1 to 13.
It's a small sample size, but his late-season surge has improved the vibe in the locker room and around the building. It's amazing how a promising young quarterback can do that.
"You have to remember, Sam is only 21 years old," Ortiz said. "He just scratched the surface of what he can bring to the table."
Ortiz, who has known Darnold since the quarterback was 6 years old, said it was "pretty inspiring" to be in the crowd last Saturday, watching one of his former players live his dream. Afterward, they met up outside the Jets' locker room and spoke briefly about the game, a Jets loss. Darnold played his best game of the season, but he lamented subtle mistakes, including better ball placement on a particular throw, according to Ortiz.
"He took ownership," Ortiz said. "Win or lose, he's the leader of that program, the leader of that team."
2. The bitter end: The Jets wrap up their home schedule Sunday against the Green Bay Packers, another meaningless game at MetLife Stadium. They haven't played an important late-season game at home since Dec. 27, 2015, when they upset the New England Patriots in overtime. Remember Ryan Fitzpatrick to Eric Decker?
All told, this will be the 14th December or January game in the past three seasons and the eighth in which the Jets have been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. They've been playing out the string in more than half of their late-season games, and that is inexcusable.
There will be sweeping changes in the offseason, starting with the coaching staff. That will mean big adjustments to the roster, so this could be the final home game for several familiar faces, including Josh McCown, Steve McLendon, Morris Claiborne, Buster Skrine, Jermaine Kearse, Brian Winters, Spencer Long and Kelvin Beachum. There would be more names on the list, but they're injured.
3. Oh, Henry! General manager Mike Maccagnan should do more trading with the Indianapolis Colts, because the two deals he did last offseason have worked out nicely for the Jets. There was the draft-pick swap that put the Jets into position to select Darnold, and there was the acquisition of defensive end Henry Anderson, who cost New York a seventh-round choice.
Anderson was having a good year until last week's game, then it became a very good year with his three-sack breakout, bringing his season total to six. Some perspective: He had only three sacks in his three seasons with the Colts. Why the turnaround?
Anderson has played on only 58 percent of the defensive snaps, significantly less than in his Indy days. That, he believes, has allowed him to stay fresh during games. The other reason is that he has had the opportunity to be an interior pass-rusher as opposed to an edge player. Anderson's skill set is conducive to the inside, and you can see the results: All six sacks came from the defensive-tackle position, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
Talk about great timing. Anderson, 27, will be an unrestricted free agent for the first time, and he is sure to attract interest if the Jets let him hit the open market.
"I like it here a lot," Anderson said. "I've enjoyed everything about this place. I could definitely see myself staying here."
4. Story with a kick: There's a story behind every Pro Bowl selection, and you can't help but appreciate the story of place-kicker Jason Myers, who was nowhere on the NFL radar screen after a successful career at tiny Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York.
After college, Myers returned to his home in California and worked as a valet at a downtown San Diego hotel, parking cars from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. every day. In the mornings, he worked out and trained with former NFL kicker Michael Husted, refusing to give up on the NFL.
"Long days, tough work, but it gave me time to work out and chase the dream," said Myers, who previously played in the Arena Football League.
Myers got his big break in February 2015, at a kicking camp in Mobile, Alabama, where he caught the eye of the Jacksonville Jaguars. On Tuesday, he became the first kicker in Jets history to make the Pro Bowl. You can bet he will reflect on his journey when he pulls up to the valet at the Pro Bowl hotel in Orlando, Florida.
5. Reality sets in: Coach Todd Bowles is expected to be fired at the end of the season, and that means his coaching staff will be gone too. It's one of the cold realities of the NFL. People get fired and a lot of lives are affected. Stump Mitchell has been coaching for 27 years -- high school, college and pro -- and he understands the business. If he loses his job, he only hopes that he made an impression on those he coached.
"If I leave anybody because I get released, I try to get those guys to remember the things they heard me say, because I don't know what some other coach is going to say," said Mitchell, who became the Jets' running backs coach in 2017. "I try to better what the coach did before I got there. That's what we do as coaches, try to make these guys better than they were."
6. Quick-hit thoughts: I look forward to hearing from Jets CEO Christopher Johnson when the season ends because there are some big questions that need to be answered. He hasn't spoken publicly since Week 2. ... Tense times at One Jets Drive. There are a lot of people walking on eggshells, and the mood is "as bad as anyone can remember," one staffer said. ... The 2018 draft class looked promising early in the season, but defensive end Nathan Shepherd and cornerback Parry Nickerson have faded, and defensive tackle Folorunso Fatukasi can't get on the field.