There was one way and one way only for Sam Darnold to recover from the most humiliating experience of his athletic life: He had to do it himself.
Darnold was about as low as a quarterback can get when Bill Belichick did a number on him in the Patriots’ 33-0 mauling of the Jets on Oct. 21 at MetLife Stadium. The second-year quarterback threw four interceptions – it very well could have been six – and he was left mumbling to himself on the sideline.
“Seeing ghosts,” Darnold said in confusion, a moment captured as a result of him being mic’d up for the television broadcast.
It was the perfect metaphor for a mind-numbingly bad night for Darnold. A week out from Halloween, he experienced the kind of mental and physical beatdown that can leave a permanent scar on a quarterback.
Look no further than one of Darnold’s predecessors, another guy who came to the Jets as a potential first-round savior from USC. Mark Sanchez was never quite the same after the “Butt Fumble” against the Patriots on Nov. 22, 2012, when he ran into teammate Brandon Moore’s rear end, fumbled and watched helplessly as the Patriots returned it for a first-half touchdown in a 49-19 loss.
Sanchez played only four more games for the Jets.
Darnold was “ghosted” by the Patriots at a much earlier time in his career than Sanchez, who was in his fourth season with the Jets at the time of the “Butt Fumble.” But the potential psychological side effects were no less perilous. In fact, you could argue that Darnold’s moment of ignominy was even more of a challenge to recover from, given that it happened so early in his development.
There was only one alternative for Darnold. No amount of talking-to by his coaches, teammates, friends or family could overcome the problem. There was nothing more that could be done with practice. The only choice was to play his way out of it.
That didn’t happen right away, of course. He was erratic in a 30-21 loss to Jacksonville the next week, throwing three more interceptions. And in the game after that, there was another brutal interception near the goal line in a pathetic loss to the previously winless Dolphins.
But Darnold’s stat line has been nearly flawless since. In his last three games – three victories in which the Jets scored 34 points each time — he had a combined seven touchdown passes, two rushing scores and one interception.
In Sunday’s 34-3 pummeling of the Raiders at MetLife Stadium, he threw for two touchdowns and ran for another. His rating of 127.8 was just a few ticks below his career best of 128.4 against the Packers last year.
He’s seeing the field better. He’s commanding the huddle better. He’s making better decisions. And he’s being much more careful with the football.
And yes, there has been some derring-do, too. Like that 31-yard completion to Robby Anderson against the Raiders, when Darnold scrambled to his left before throwing against his body, lofting the ball over a defender’s outstretched fingers and finding Anderson over the middle.
Adam Gase had his heart in his throat on that one, but sometimes coaches need to let their quarterbacks dare to be great.
“I’m sure the first thing out of my mouth to him was, ‘Can you please run that next time?’ ” Gase cracked. But the coach also called it "an unbelievable throw.”
Overall, Darnold has been much more cognizant of avoiding turnovers. “The amount of plays he ran out of the pocket, didn’t force anything and just getting rid of the ball, throwing it out of bounds,” Le’Veon Bell said. “That’s growth.”
The running back has never been with a quarterback this young. When Bell was drafted by the Steelers in 2013, Ben Roethlisberger was a fully formed star quarterback with two Super Bowl victories on his resume. To see Darnold’s career from the ground up has been a rare treat.
“I continue to keep having to [be reminded by] the fact that I’ve never played with a younger guy, so for me, it’s amazing seeing him, each and every day, every rep,” Bell said. “Him as a player, him as a leader, he can only get better from here.”
Darnold is careful not to look too far ahead. In fact, he took so much heat for even hinting that a playoff run might be possible after the Jets beat the Giants earlier this month that he no longer talks about the postseason. In fact, it’s as if he thinks it’s required to say “take it one week at a time” in every news conference.
“It really starts by thinking one week at a time,” he said. “With that mindset comes one day at a time.”
Darnold has recovered from last month’s MetLife horror show, and he did it the only way possible: He did it himself.