A smile crossed Sam Darnold’s face as he listened to the question.
Someone — OK, it was me — wanted to know if Darnold was ready for the increased level of attention after making his NFL debut on the national stage of Monday Night Football in a resounding 48-17 win over the Lions.
Why the smile?
Well, you see, Darnold already has dealt with the high visibility thing, having played at USC. He has been on magazine covers as a Heisman Trophy hopeful. He has been on national television in the Rose Bowl. He was a central figure in the 2018 draft.
“Just being at USC, I’m used to the attention,” he said. “I know leading up to my last year, it was kind of hectic in terms of Heisman talk and all of that kind of stuff. I’m pretty used to that.”
But as bright as the spotlight has been, it’s not nearly as intense as it will be from now on. College football may be popular, and the draft may draw record television ratings, but there is nothing quite like the NFL. And for all his experience with fame, the attention will ramp up exponentially now that he’s the starting quarterback of a pro football team in the New York market. A team that has been searching for a big-time quarterback like Darnold since the days of Joe Namath half a century ago.
On an intellectual level, Darnold knows what’s coming.
“It’s different now, being in the NFL and all these expectations and everything,” he said.
But until a player goes through the adjustment period of playing in a league that draws the most scrutiny of any in the country, it’s impossible to know what it’s truly like.
“Oh, there’s a lot more attention, for sure,” said Josh McCown, the quarterback Darnold replaced as the Jets’ starter.
But McCown believes Darnold is uniquely suited to deal with what’s ahead. Part of it is Darnold’s experience at USC, where he and former UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen were at the epicenter of college football quarterback scrutiny last season. The other part is Darnold’s personality.
“Sam is such a high-character person, so to the extent that any of those things [related to a higher profile] will take his eye off the ball, that won’t happen,” McCown said. “I don’t think he would be here if he thought like that. His character, his love for the game is so much that I don’t think that’s an issue.”
Darnold doesn’t seem worried about the increased attention; in fact, he almost welcomes it. The stage is big, but it doesn’t seem too big for a player who might have just the right temperament to deal with what’s ahead.
“It’s different, but at the same time, I’m just going to continue to be myself,” he said. “I’ve been myself my entire career — high school, college, now the NFL — and I don’t see myself changing anytime soon.”
Great arm, great presence in the huddle, great grasp of the offense . . . and a great temperament.
That was especially evident after Darnold’s very first regular- season play.
Offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates wanted to set the tempo immediately with a bold play call and had Darnold roll out to his right. Meanwhile, running back Bilal Powell drifted into the left flat, where Bates expected Powell would get little attention from the Detroit defense. Darnold fired a pass in Powell’s direction, but safety Quandre Diggs played possum and then darted in front of Powell to make the interception. He returned it 37 yards for a touchdown.
But Darnold was unfazed and went 16-for-21 for 196 yards and two touchdowns after the interception.
“I feel like I have always kind of had that calm to me, a calm demeanor and all that, but especially after that first play, it was just a matter of not messing up anymore and just going out there and taking what the defense gives you,” said Darnold, who will face the Dolphins on Sunday at MetLife Stadium. “That’s really all I could control after that because I know whatever happens in the past is the past, that’s how I look at it. That’s kind of how I was raised as well, and I think that has a big part to do with it.”
McCown wanted to make sure Bates wouldn’t back off his aggressive play-calling after the interception and made a point of telling the coach to continue pushing the envelope.
“I just said that is exactly why we’re gonna win the football game, because we have confidence and trust in one another and that’s going to play out the next 59 minutes,” McCown said. “The very thing that put us in that situation is what’s going to carry us to victory. You tried it, you took a shot, it didn’t work out the way you wanted it to, but we were back the next series. As an offense, you have to have that. You can’t just talk about it. You have to go out and do it. You have to have that disposition to overcome things. It was awesome.”
Yes, it was just one game, and coach Todd Bowles provided a fitting perspective by reminding everyone — including Darnold — that there still is a long way to go before proclaiming his quarterback has arrived.
“We won one game,” Bowles said when asked if he believes he now has a franchise quarterback. “I can tell you after about 100 more of them whether we have one or not. Right now, it’s a little early.”
He’s right about that. As Bowles’ mentor, Bill Parcells, used to say, you don’t put young players into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on roller skates. You let things unfold and see what you’ve got.
Even so, it’s hard not to be intrigued by what we’ve seen so far.