Rookie Sam Darnold flashed signs that he's ready to take over an NFL offense, looking every part like the Jets' Week 1 starter Friday night.
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J.—Sam Darnold was facing a third down, with 8 yards to go, near midfield on his opening drive Friday night against the Giants. As the play clock was winding down, the rookie quarterback was gesturing to his teammates, changing the play before the ball was snapped.
“I saw some ‘backers mugged in the ‘A’ gaps,” Darnold explained, “and thought that one of them wasn’t going to be able to get out to the tight end.”
He was right. Darnold’s audible instructed Neal Sterling, the fourth-year tight end, to change his route to run an out into the flat. Sterling made the catch for 13 yards, moving the chains and keeping alive the Jets’ 11-play, 75-yard touchdown drive. It was “pretty cool,” the 21-year-old quarterback said after the game, to be able to see a defensive look he’d prepared for in practice, and digest the information, and make the right check. For the Jets, it was beyond pretty cool—it was one of the signs that the No. 3 overall pick is ready to start opening weekend.
This was as close to a regular-season setting as you’ll get before Week 1. Darnold played the entire first half against a first-string defense, and he looked like he belonged.
Three plays after that third-and-8 conversion, the Jets had another third down, this time with 13 yards to go. Darnold saw that the Giants defense was in man coverage and that there was room to run, and as soon as he saw he had passed the first-down marker, he began to slide. His 14-yard scramble again extended the drive.
Another attribute that is impressive for a rookie is that he can make throws when conditions aren’t perfect. He fired an off-balance throw on target to RB Isaiah Crowell; on his 12-yard TD pass to Terrelle Pryor, the pocket was beginning to close in, but he waited just long enough to see Pryor flashing open while crossing the field. On that TD pass, Darnold thought he might be able to squeeze the ball in to tight end Chris Herndon on a post route in the end zone. “But again, going back to making sure that I’m taking care of the football, I didn’t really want to force it in there,” Darnold said. “I knew I had a shallow coming to me, and dinked it off to Terrelle, and he did the rest.” The biggest knock on Darnold coming out of USC was that he turned the ball over 22 times his senior season, so that awareness was notable.
Darnold, who finished the night 8-of-16 for 86 yards and a touchdown, wasn’t perfect by any means. During one drive backed up against his own end zone, he held onto the ball too long and was chased down by two Giants defensive linemen, picking up an intentional grounding flag as he tried to get rid of the ball. But overall, he is a good decision-maker who appears ready for this stage. Even legendary Jets QB Joe Namath, who was in attendance at the game, said on the CBS broadcast that Darnold had performed better than he had seen from any rookie.
The biggest question for the Jets is will their hopeful franchise quarterback be adversely affected by playing sooner than later, especially without the kind of supporting cast that can elevate a young quarterback? They’re thin on the offensive line, which was clear Friday night as Brent Qvale struggled to fill in for an injured Kelvin Beachum at left tackle. And Darnold would have just one receiver with a 1,000-yard season around him: Terrelle Pryor, who is still working his way back to 100 percent after two ankle surgeries in the last year. Plus, penalties (13 for 108 yards) and poor special teams play continued to be a scourge for the Jets.
It’s a valid point that either of the two veteran options the Jets have, Josh McCown and Teddy Bridgewater, would be better equipped to make up for deficiencies elsewhere on the roster. And you could certainly argue, why the rush to play a guy you hope will lead your franchise for the next decade? But, all along the Jets have said while they wouldn’t rush Darnold, they also would not hold him back. He would play when he was ready to play. He looks ready to play.
Jets head coach Todd Bowles has held his QB decisions so close to the vest that, before each preseason game, he wouldn’t even share how much each QB would play. But, reps tell a story of their own. And, since the first preseason game, Darnold has been receiving the majority of reps in practice, per the beat writers, and he got the entire first half of work against the Giants’ best pass rushers and coverage men. Yes, the rookie needs more practice than either Bridgewater or McCown, but the fact that the distribution of reps is so skewed suggests it is Darnold’s job to lose at this point.
Bowles didn’t say anything that gave a different impression. He didn’t announce any quarterback decisions after Friday night’s game, but he said that Darnold “did everything we asked him to do.” The Jets begin their season in Detroit in two weeks, and Darnold looks ready to begin his career as their starting quarterback.