There was a touchdown pass to Terrelle Pryor, a 14-yard scramble on third-and-13, a key third-down completion to Quincy Enunwa and a clutch completion to Robby Anderson.
But of all the plays that Sam Darnold took away from the game that all but clinched his likely spot as the Jets’ Opening Day starter, it was the one he made with his mind that stands out most.
On his first drive against the Giants in his final preseason appearance on Aug. 24, Darnold lined up on third-and-8 from the Giants’ 45-yard line and surveyed the defense. He noticed a formation that would allow him to complete a pass to fourth-year tight end Neal Sterling, but only if Darnold changed the play at the line of scrimmage.
“Just saw some [line]backers mugged in the A-gaps and just thought that one of them wasn’t going to be able to get out to the tight ends,” Darnold said.
He signaled to Sterling to adjust his route so he would run farther to the right side of the field than the original play called for. Darnold then completed the pass to a wide-open Sterling for a 13-yard gain and a first down.
“It was pretty cool to be able to see it, digest the information and kind of do that on my own,” Darnold said. “It was pretty cool to be able to see that and check to it. It was a really good feeling.”
It might be the best example of why Darnold has convinced the Jets’ coaches that the moment is not too big, that he is ready to handle what lies ahead. Coach Todd Bowles has hinted that he knows whom he’ll go with as his starter, and while he hasn’t publicly said it’s Darnold, it would be a huge upset if it’s not.
After all, you don’t trade Teddy Bridgewater, who had a terrific camp after coming to the Jets on a one-year deal, without being confident about going with the rookie.
Bowles understands that this will not necessarily be a smooth transition from the preseason to the regular season for Darnold, and he knows that Darnold will face far more complicated defenses now that the games are about to count. But with Darnold passing each test from the time he joined the team as the No. 3 overall pick, and with the rookie able to play just about even with Bridgewater and 39-year-old Josh McCown, it was Darnold himself who made the decision easier for the coaches.
Had he not shown the kind of command of the offense he did in practice and the preseason games, it would have been no problem for him to sit and watch until he showed more definitive signs of being ready. But he has shown a football maturity beyond his years, which is all the more remarkable because he has been a starter for only three seasons — one in high school and two in college.
Assuming he gets the No. 1 job, the 21-year-old Darnold will become the youngest rookie Opening Day starter since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.
“I think consistency is the biggest thing for me,” Darnold said. “But at the same time, obviously there’s little things that I can get better at. There always is and there always will be.”
There is, of course, no guarantee that Darnold will blossom into the franchise quarterback the Jets have been searching for since Joe Namath won the team’s only Super Bowl half a century ago. No matter how well-prepared he might be, he might succumb to the pressures of the game and be unable to solve defenses on a consistent enough basis to become an elite quarterback.
But he looks like as solid a prospect as you could want, and his talent and work ethic will carry him through the inevitable lows that every quarterback experiences.
“One thing I will say is I haven’t seen any panic in him,” former NFL quarterback Boomer Esiason said. “I haven’t seen the deer-in-the-headlights look. Now, all that changes when the regular season starts, because it’s the mental stress that these guys have to handle that they’ve never handled like this before.”
But former Bengals, Jets and Cardinals quarterback Esiason, who now is the morning show host at WFAN and an NFL analyst for CBS and Showtime, believes Darnold has the goods.
“He’s California cool, but he is a big, physical man,” Esiason said. “He is built like the prototypical NFL quarterback. Mark Sanchez wasn’t built like that. Carson Wentz [of the Eagles] is built like that. Pat Mahomes [of the Chiefs] is built like that. Andrew Luck [of the Colts] is built like that. I think all the physical stuff is there, and the mental stuff will come on relatively quickly. But there will be growing pains, make no bones about it.”
There will be growing pains, and there will be losses. And maybe a lot of both.
But in the end, Darnold can become the kind of quarterback for the Jets that Eli Manning turned into with the Giants.
Remember, Manning went through plenty of struggles early in his career and even stumbled midway through his fourth season in 2007 before going on to win his first of two Super Bowl titles.
It’s all part of the process, and the Jets go into this with open eyes.
“I need to see a little more of him before I say he’s going to be great,” said former Giants Super Bowl-winning quarterback Phil Simms, also a CBS and Showtime analyst. “But I expect him to do well. [Young quarterbacks are now] trained better, they have more at their disposal and it’s easier now. The coaches are smarter. They give them more options. They’re not holding the ball for five seconds, so it’s changed.”
Darnold is about to get his shot the way Simms did with the Giants beginning in 1979 and Esiason with the Bengals in 1984. The Jets are convinced that Darnold can achieve similar success over time.
The journey is about to begin.