DETROIT — No sane person associated with the Jets would have wished Sam Darnold’s first play on him. But in an odd, upside-down, Jets-ian way, it might have been the best thing that happened to him on Monday night.
After months of hype, the rookie quarterback finally made his NFL debut against the Lions on national, prime-time TV, and on his first play was intercepted by Quandre Diggs, who returned the ball 37 yards for a touchdown.
To call it shocking would be a vast understatement. It was unfathomable. His parents were there. His old buddies at Southern Cal were watching back home. The fortunes of an entire NFL franchise rested on his shoulder pads.
Then, boom: a throw across the field aimed at Bilal Powell, easily picked off by Diggs, and it was 7-0 after 20 seconds.
That was when things got really interesting.
“He didn’t flinch; he didn’t even blink,” Jets coach Todd Bowles said. “Obviously, he got it out of the way. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that we planned that so he could get the jitters out, but . . . “
But . . . it worked!
Darnold finished 16-for-21 for 198 yards and two touchdowns as the Jets stormed back to win in a rout, 48-17.
Darnold has been praised for his maturity and unflappability. How better to prove that than after diving into his professional career with a spectacular belly flop?
And that he did, reassuring fans and more importantly teammates that the kid is all right.
He admitted he was nervous on the first play. Then, poof, he was able to move on, tension-free.
“After that pick it was, ‘Oh, shoot,’ and then I was like, ‘OK, here we go. It can’t get much worse than that,’” he said. “It really was that kind of thinking that was going on in my head.”
It helped that teammates and coaches were taking turns reassuring him, including backup/mentor Josh McCown.
“We just said, ‘Let’s go and reload,’ ” McCown said. “Everybody had his back and we were together. Oddly enough, I think it galvanized us more than anything and was a catalyst to us going out and playing the way we did.”
Darnold made a number of impressive plays after the awful start. His first career touchdown pass came on a third-and-2 at the Detroit 41-yard line. Given plenty of time by blockers, he threw the ball into the left front portion of the end zone. Robby Anderson tore it away from safety Tavon Wilson with 1:51 left in the first half.
“Robby put his hand up,” Darnold said. “Once Robby puts his hand up he knows that he has someone beat, so I just gave it a shot.”
After the Lions tied it at 17 to start the second half, Darnold marched the Jets right back, capped by a 21-yard touchdown pass to Quincy Enunwa.
All of this was going on in the din of Ford Field, adding to the degree of difficulty.
None of which is to say Darnold is the answer to Jets fans’ prayers. For now, all we know is that he faced a challenge, responded to it and passed his first regular-season test.
The Jets had decided during the week they would take a deep shot on his first play, a bold strategy that blew up. “After that, it is what it is,” he said. “Put it behind you and then play the game. That’s really what I did.”
Brett Favre’s first NFL pass, as a Falcon in 1991, was intercepted and returned for a touchdown. He managed to recover from that and fashion a decent NFL career.
Will Darnold do the same? We shall see. But his terrible first play turned out not to be a bad start at all.