Todd Bowles wasn’t willing to state the obvious in the run-up to Friday night’s Jets-Giants preseason game, but his deployment of prized rookie quarterback Sam Darnold during practice made it obvious: The kid will have his biggest audition yet, almost certainly as the starter.
Darnold took the overwhelming share of reps with the Jets’ first-team offense, and it sure feels as if he has all but locked up the No. 1 job for the regular season.
Even though it has been less than four weeks since he reported to camp after a three-day contract holdout, Darnold has come so far so fast that he has done everything possible to convince Bowles and his coaching staff that he’s ready to go.
Bowles repeatedly has said he wants to wait until after the final preseason game next Thursday in Philadelphia before he names his Week 1 starter. However, all the evidence up to now suggests Darnold is the guy.
As he should be.
You watch him in practice, you watch him in the games and you see very little difference between Darnold, Teddy Bridgewater and Josh McCown. In fact, based on how well he has operated the offense — particularly on the practice field — you could make the argument that Darnold is the best one of the group. He makes throws the other two can’t make, often threading the ball between defenders through the smallest possible window.
Look at it this way: If a rookie quarterback has looked this good this quickly and his play is almost indistinguishable from — or even better than — two players with a combined 18 years of NFL experience, why not go with him from the start?
He won’t be perfect. He will make his share of mistakes the way virtually every first-time starter does. But if the experiences of Peyton Manning, John Elway, Troy Aikman, Dan Marino and other young blue-chip quarterbacks are any indication, playing him right away can be invaluable in Darnold’s long-term development.
Bowles’ plan of having McCown as his starter, with Bridgewater No. 2 and Darnold No. 3, made complete sense when the Jets reported to training camp last month. Why rush a player who might not be ready, only to run the risk of a serious regression by putting him into the lineup before his time?
But day after day, Darnold kept getting better, kept figuring out the concepts behind the plays of offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates, kept building confidence in himself and in those around him. It is a testament to Darnold’s skill set and intellectual fortitude that he has elevated himself to this position.
Great quarterbacks always have an “it” factor about them. Even if you can’t quantify what “it” is, you know it when you see it. And Darnold surely seems to have it, even though he is so early in the process.
He has a tremendous athletic intelligence about him, and his ability to learn from his mistakes has been an indispensable part of his early growth.
Think back for a moment to when he was being scrutinized in the pre-draft process. Experts picked apart his poor ball security habits at USC, as he fumbled 21 times and lost 14 in his last two seasons. Darnold completely reworked his technique to address the problem and now consistently has two hands on the ball when he is looking to buy time in the pocket or scrambling away from danger.
It’s just one example of not only his willingness to transform his game but his ability to correct his mistakes.
There will be plenty more misfires in the days, months and years ahead, no doubt. But to see Darnold absorb an NFL offense this quickly and this effectively is to see a quarterback who will be ready quicker than most.
His time is now.