ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- In three weeks, the New York Jets' big bosses -- owner Woody Johnson and CEO Christopher Johnson -- will set a new course for the franchise. In all likelihood they will fire coach Todd Bowles, who won Sunday for the first time in 56 days. The real question involves general manager Mike Maccagnan, who is equally culpable for the Jets' 4-9 record.
Maccagnan hasn't distinguished himself as an ace talent evaluator, but the sense around the team is that he probably will get the chance to proceed with the rebuilding plan he hatched in 2017. Days like Sunday will help his cause.
His two most important player acquisitions from last offseason, quarterback Sam Darnold and cornerback Trumaine Johnson, came through in the fourth quarter of the Jets' 27-23 victory over the Buffalo Bills at New Era Field.
Shaking off the rust from a four-week layoff, Darnold was the comeback kid as he rallied the Jets from 20-13 and 23-20 deficits with two long touchdown drives in the fourth quarter. It was like his 2016 season at USC, except 50 degrees colder. He made plays with his arm and his feet, validating his lofty draft position. That he outplayed fellow rookie Josh Allen, whom Maccagnan rated lower than Darnold as a prospect, made the GM look smart.
“He has the right makeup," backup/mentor Josh McCown said of Darnold. "Those are the things that you look for and you want in quarterback that’s going to lead your franchise for a long time. Today was a glimpse of that.”
Maccagnan has missed on a bunch of draft choices -- only one of 28 picks, safety Jamal Adams, is a true impact player -- but he can buy time for himself if Darnold develops into a productive starter. This is how it works: Solve the quarterback riddle, which has vexed this franchise for decades, and you're good. It's the great equalizer, one that can make cynics forget about Christian Hackenberg, Devin Smith, ArDarius Stewart, et al. Darnold played his best game in two months, infusing hope into an organization that appeared dead during a six-game losing streak.
Darnold cost them three second-round draft picks, the price for trading up. Johnson cost them straight cash, and a lot of it -- $34 million guaranteed included in a five-year, $72.5 million contract. Until two weeks ago, he looked like another free-agent disappointment, but he has come to life with three interceptions (one for a touchdown) in the past two games.
On Sunday, Johnson recorded his third and fourth interceptions, sealing the game with a last-minute pick. He missed five games with a quadriceps injury, so we're talking four interceptions in eight games. Not bad. Maybe, just maybe, Maccagnan didn't flush away a boatload of money.
“It’s not about me," Johnson said. "I just made some plays. It’s not about me. ... I don’t pay no mind to [the criticism]. I never paid no mind to it in St. Louis, in L.A., now in New York. It is what it is. They love you, they hate you and they love you again."
Maccagnan hasn't fared well with big-ticket contracts (see: Muhammad Wilkerson and Darrelle Revis), so a strong finish by Johnson would help change the perception that Maccagnan doesn't spend wisely when he has a lot of money to burn. The offseason will be critical in that regard, as the Jets will have close to $100 million in cap space. If the owners don't trust the GM to make wise investments, they shouldn't keep him around.
The decision is multilayered because ownership must decide if a Maccagnan-led front office will be attractive to prospective coaching candidates and if it will empower him to make the hire. Remember, Bowles wasn't his choice; it was an arranged marriage, so to speak.
This had been a tough few days for Maccagnan. On Friday, his first-round pick in 2016 -- Darron Lee -- was suspended four game for violating the league's substance-abuse policy. The only thing worse than an underachieving player is an underachieving player with off-the-field issues.
"It's a great disappointment," coach Todd Bowles said of Lee's suspension. "He made a big mistake and only time will tell whether he learned from it or not."
Things change quickly in the NFL. Two days after the embarrassing suspension, Maccagnan saw some of his handiwork pay off. Aside from Darnold and Johnson, former draft pick Elijah McGuire scored the game-winning touchdown, a 1-yard run with 1:17 to play.
Big day for the Jets. A bigger day for the GM.