FLORHAM PARK, N.J. – Boomer Esiason offered some interesting perspective about what comes next for Sam Darnold, and it had very little to do with the actual football part of Darnold’s development. A former MVP quarterback himself, Esiason is already encouraged about Darnold’s ability to play.
It’s something else.
“He’s just gotta be ‘The Man’ now,” Esiason said in a recent interview. “He’s got to learn to be The Man. He’s got to own the team. Quarterbacks have got to own their teams.”
“There’s definitely that sense that you have to be ‘The Man,’” Darnold told me in the Jets’ locker room Thursday, as he continues preparations for Sunday’s regular season opener against the Bills at MetLife Stadium. “But I’m going to do it my own way.”
Darnold understands Esiason’s point and agrees that he must be front-and-center. In the locker room. In the huddle. It’s an obligation unique to franchise quarterbacks, although not all of them can handle that kind of responsibility.
I believe Darnold can. And will.
“I’ve always done it my own way, whether it’s leading at [USC] when I was a redshirt freshman coming in,” he said. “Then, stepping into a leadership role in my redshirt sophomore year, I still did it my way.”
His way? Let Darnold explain.
“I wasn’t a rah-rah guy [at USC],” he said. “I wasn’t getting the guys hyped up or anything like that. But I was definitely more of a leader. I did it my way. I think [Esiason] saying I’ve got to be ‘the man,’ I think that’s true and that resonates. But I can also do it my way.
“I’m not saying he’s trying to tell me to be the rah-rah guy,” Darnold said. “I’m just saying my leadership personality isn’t that. But there definitely is that [responsibility] when you’re a quote-unquote franchise quarterback, you’ve got to have respect in the locker room and around the building.”’
There is no question Darnold has the respect in the locker room and around the building. You can just see it in the way he carries himself. He understands the weight of the franchise is on his shoulders, and he accepts the responsibility that comes with it. He looks more certain of himself. He practices with more confidence. He has earned the trust of coach Adam Gase. He talks to his teammates more easily and more openly. And they listen intently.
He has grown up before our eyes, especially compared to this time last year, when he took his first uncertain steps as a rookie starter. Darnold showed plenty of promise last season, fending off Josh McCown for the starting job and playing reasonably well until a midseason battering against Gase’s Dolphins. But he suffered a foot injury that afternoon in South Florida, where he threw four interceptions, and returned a better quarterback. Over his last four games, he had six touchdown passes and just one interception.
“Like night and day,” he said of the difference at this time of year compared to the week before last season’s opener. “I just think it’s comfortability, being comfortable around the guys and having more ownership. Seeing more defenses. Really just feel more comfortable with everything.”
He’ll soon get to see whether the increased comfort level will translate to improved results. And he’s leaving open the possibility of a stratospheric improvement in Year 2, similar to the jump Carson Wentz took in Philadelphia in his second season.
Wentz, the second overall pick in 2016, showed promise as a rookie starter, but he performed at an MVP-caliber level in Year 2, going 11-2 before suffering a season-ending knee injury. Nick Foles replaced him and wound up leading the Eagles to their first Super Bowl victory.
“I guess we’ll see,” Darnold said. “I definitely think that can happen, but for us, it’s about going out there and executing.”
He can’t wait to get going.
“We have a ton of confidence, not only in the coaching staff and in the game plan that we have going into Week 1, but just in ourselves, too,” he said. “We have a ton of confidence in ourselves. We’re ready to roll. Football’s back, and we’re ready to go.”
And Darnold is ready to be “the man.”