LANDOVER, Md. — It is the single most difficult position in professional sports, and virtually no one makes a seamless transition to the NFL as a rookie quarterback.
Not Aaron Rodgers.
Not Eli Manning.
Not Peyton Manning.
Not Joe Montana.
And not Tom Brady.
Count up all the Super Bowl winning quarterbacks you like, and you won’t find any of them who dominated right from the start.
Add Sam Darnold to that list, because he won’t be any different.
The Jets rookie was in the starting lineup for the first time in his fledgling career, and while he showed the kind of poise and composure as his debut last week against the Falcons, he found out like every other blue-chip quarterback who came before that this will take some time.
Darnold had his first preseason touchdown pass against the Falcons last week and threw his first interception in Thursday night’s game against Washington. It was an ill-advised pass into coverage on 4th-and-1 at the Redskins’ 20 late in the second quarter.
A rookie mistake? Sure. But it was a mistake that more than a few veterans would make because mistakes are part of the game for any player, no less the No. 3 overall pick in the draft. All quarterbacks of all ages throw interceptions, and Darnold will throw his share if and when he’s given the chance as the Jets’ regular-season starter.
Despite that notable miscue, there were more positive signs of growth for Darnold, and more indications that he could be the Week 1 starter. He was 8-for-11 for 62 yards, no touchdowns and the interception. He was also sacked twice.
One of the most encouraging parts of his night was something that wasn’t obvious on the field of play, but was important nonetheless in how Darnold performed. It’s what was going on between his ears.
“Just continuing to be have a flow about myself in terms of getting the play called and spitting it out in the huddle,” he said. “I thought I did a lot better job this game than I did last.”
That may not seem like a big deal, but it is. Learning an NFL playbook is like learning a foreign language, and the ability of a quarterback to process the information and then deliver it to his teammates is highly complicated. That Darnold is able to better relay the plays and the pass protections called in by offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates is huge.
“It was fun to feel really comfortable with every single play call,” Darnold said. “I felt like when [Bates] started to call the play, I knew exactly what play he was going to. It’s that kind of preparation that I’m going to try to replicate every single week so I can get in and out of the huddle and get to work.”
Darnold’s playing time was limited to just the first half, which meant he was in for just three series. That’s certainly not enough time to get him into a consistent rhythm like a regular season game, and he’ll need plenty more work ahead to get him ready in the event he becomes Todd Bowles’ Week 1 starter.
Bowles has consistently said he won’t make a final decision until after the fourth game. But unless Darnold shows definitive signs of regression in practice and against the Giants, Darnold should be the guy. This team is fully invested in him moving forward, and as long as the game isn’t too big for him — and that doesn’t appear to be the case right now — then go with him from the start.
Bowles doesn’t want to do anything to jeopardize Darnold’s development, and I can’t imagine the coach would put his young quarterback in unless he was convinced of Darnold’s readiness. With the days dwindling down until the start of the regular season, the signs continue to point to Darnold being the right choice starting on Day 1.