Forget rookie's rough home opener: Sam Darnold will be a star

ByIan O'Connor ESPN logo
Monday, September 17, 2018

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- One game deep into his NFL career, Sam Darnold was already a certified big-city star. He earned the front and back pages of The New York Post on Sunday, while the competing Daily News dressed him up as Hamilton (Samilton). Who cares that the Jets almost never light up Broadway, or that it had been half a century since they last won it all?

Joe Willie Namath didn't command this kind of attention until he won that epic Super Bowl in Year 4 and started wearing pantyhose in TV ads. And that's OK. The Jets can't sell winning to the masses, but in Darnold, they can sell the next-best thing: hope.

One 20-12 home loss to the Miami Dolphins changes none of that, of course. Darnold is three months removed from his 21st birthday, and if you've watched pro football for any length of time, you could see the rookie's dynamic talent Sunday even as he was throwing two ghastly interceptions and making his metropolitan-area debut the way most Jets make it -- with a profoundly disappointing thud.

Do not sweat it, New York, the kid is going to be all right.

Namath was 3-5-1 in his first season, in 1965. Eli Manning was 1-6 with six touchdown passes and nine interceptions as a rookie for the Giants in 2004.

Outside the market, John Elway was 4-6 with seven touchdown passes and 14 interceptions as a rookie in 1983. Young Troy Aikman was 0-11 with nine touchdown passes and 18 interceptions in 1989. Young Peyton Manning was 3-13 with 26 touchdowns and 28 interceptions nine years later. Young Tom Brady completed only one pass for 6 yards in 2000 before ... well, before he became Tom Brady in 2001.

Nobody knows for sure if Darnold will be the quarterback to finally wrest the AFC East from Brady's eternal death grip, or if Miami's Ryan Tannehill, now 2-0, will surprise everyone in his comeback season and prove that his 39-40 career record does not accurately reflect the talent previously hidden within. But Darnold remains the best bet as Brady's divisional successor, even if that means he leads the Jets to one Super Bowl title in his career, never mind five. He has the presence, the athleticism and apparently the advanced maturity and poise lacked by his fellow USC TrojanMark Sanchezback in the day.

That's why Darnold's wildly successful big league debut last Monday night in Detroit might've represented the biggest one for a New York athlete since Derek Jeter homered and made a crucial over-the-shoulder catch in a 1996 Opening Day victory in Cleveland in his first game as the Yankees' full-time shortstop. The Yankees are bigger than the Jets in this market -- much bigger -- and the Giants overshadow them, too.

And yet the Jets' biblical drought has elevated Darnold to immediate rock-star status, especially after the Giants passed on him in the draft with the second overall pick in favor of Saquon Barkley and one last dance with Eli, the aging, two-time champ. A popular point of reference, at least in this space, reminds that the Jets haven't appeared in a Super Bowl since man stepped on the moon. Darnold's triumph over the Lions was one small step for all baby boomers desperate for a parade.

The quarterback failed to take a second step Sunday after missing a wide-open Quincy Enunwa in the back of the end zone (Darnold said he was throwing the ball away before spotting the receiver too late) and after he threw short of the goal line on the final play of the first half to allow Miami a 20-0 halftime lead. Darnold opened the second half by driving his team right down the field and throwing a 28-yard touchdown pass to Bilal Powell. But after the Jets recovered a Tannehill fumble on the first play of the next possession, Darnold immediately silenced a roaring MetLife Stadium crowd by throwing an interception in the end zone that all but announced the Jets wouldn't be leaving the building with a 2-0 start.

The intended receiver, Terrelle Pryor, took the blame for running a so-so route, but Darnold would hear none of it. "I put that on myself," he said. "I could have put the ball up a little more, give TP a chance maybe to go up and snag it with his big body and his long arms. I thought I could have given him a better chance to go get the ball."

It was a wise thing for an anointed quarterback with a sky-high profile to say.

Darnold wouldn't criticize his offensive line for getting him hit, or his running backs for gaining a lousy 41 yards on 17 carries. In the end, Darnold knew Tannehill simply outplayed him with his arm and his feet, and Darnold decided to take his defeat like a man.

"Every time you lose," Darnold said, "I look at it as a lesson."

He is getting the reps that Baker Mayfield isn't getting in Cleveland, that Josh Rosen isn't getting in Arizona, and with them, Darnold has done nothing to disabuse his employers of the notion that they lucked out, big time, when he fell to them at No. 3 on draft night. On a bad day at the office, he still managed to throw for 334 yards, making him the youngest player (at 21 years, 103 days) in league history to throw for at least 300 yards in a game, according to the Elias Sports Bureau research.

Not that it mattered much in the end. As they waited outside the Jets' locker room, Darnold's parents didn't look half as thrilled as they did in Detroit last week. Losing stinks. Losing a home debut in New York as the new toast of the town really, really stinks.

Welcome to the NFL, Sam, and don't get too discouraged -- Jets fans are expecting only one Super Bowl title over the next 15 or so years. With your talent and temperament, that shouldn't be too much to ask.

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