FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Sam Darnold took the snap from center, dropped back in the pocket and waited a moment for Quincy Enunwa to complete his pattern deep down the left sideline.
The Jets’ second-year quarterback delivered a high, arcing pass that dropped in the perfect spot for Enunwa to make the catch over cornerback Darryl Roberts.
The pass came nearly a year to the day after Darnold’s first NFL training camp practice, and it couldn’t have illustrated his progress any better. The No. 3 pick of the 2018 draft had just returned to the team after missing the first three practices in a contract holdout, and while he made great progress as a rookie, the TD throw to Enunwa was a microcosm of where he is now: a more confident, self-assured player who looks like he’s ready to make a substantial leap now that he has a full season under his belt.
Darnold even looks different. He’s sleeker after an offseason’s worth of vigorous training and more attention to nutrition, and he understands what it takes to get through the grind of the NFL season.
“I know where my body needs to be, because I've never played a 16-week season before ,” Darnold said. “I didn’t really know what it took in the beginning, for my rookie year. So, knowing exactly what it takes and just getting myself and mind and my body ready to attack the 16-week season, I think I did a good job of that this spring.”
Physically, he looks to be in better condition. Mentally, he looks sharp as he begins the task of executing coach Adam Gase’s offense against an admittedly aggressive defense now choreographed by coordinator Gregg Williams.
“The No. 1 thing is attack,” Darnold said. “Don’t let the defense get settled in. Make them feel uncomfortable every single play. That’s our goal. That’s what we’re going to do, whether that’s with tempo or pushing the ball down the field. It’s just keeping the defense on their toes, making sure they have no idea what’s coming.”
Of course, the true test comes when Darnold faces defenses when it counts, starting with the regular season opener against the Bills on Sept. 9 at MetLife Stadium. But preparation is the key with any quarterback, and Darnold so far is checking all the boxes for Gase.
In fact, Gase had a unique perspective on seeing Darnold’s maturating process last season. In a 13-6 loss to Gase’s Dolphins last Nov. 4, Darnold had his worst game, throwing four interceptions and looking completely lost. It was the type of performance that leads to a benching, although then-coach Todd Bowles didn’t have a choice in the matter; Darnold suffered a foot injury and missed the next three games.
It turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because Darnold benefited by sitting back and watching veteran Josh McCown run the offense. The Jets lost all three games, but the break did wonders for Darnold. He returned for the final month of the season and seemed like a different player.
“I think there was a big difference from when he came back from the injury,” said Gase, who was fired by the Dolphins after last season. “It almost looked like he went from Year 1 to [Year] 2 just watching Josh play those games and then coming back you could tell he was getting the ball out quicker, making better decisions, moving the ball well, finding ways to get in the end zone. And then just, even though it’s a new offense, he's taken a lot of those things that he's learned and applied them.”
McCown, who attended Jets’ practice Saturday morning, is convinced Darnold’s improvement is genuine.
“I think the ultimate test comes in games, but just watching Sam’s feet, the rhythm of how he’s playing, is really what you want to see from Year 1 to Year 2 in any offense,” McCown said Saturday afternoon. “Are you playing faster? Are you doing things with a better rhythm? He’s doing that, and I think that given the scope of what Adam is teaching and the volume of the offense, for him to look this way this early is a good sign.”
If recent NFL history is an indication, then Darnold’s progress bodes well. With more and more teams deciding to go with rookie quarterbacks as starters, the difficult apprenticeship in Year 1 is followed by vastly improved performance in Year 2. Consider:
Carson Wentz, the No. 2 pick in 2016, was 7-9 as a rookie with the Eagles, throwing 16 touchdown passes and 14 interceptions. A year later, he went 11-2 with 33 touchdown passes and just seven interceptions before suffering a season-ending knee injury.
Jared Goff of the Rams, No. 1 overall in 2016, lost all seven of his starts as a rookie. But he is 24-7 over his last two seasons with a combined 60 touchdown passes.
And while it might not be an exact comparison, since Patrick Mahomes played just one game as a rookie, he blossomed into a star last season with 50 touchdown passes as the league’s Most Valuable Player.
You get the idea.
When a quarterback has Darnold’s kind of talent, the payoff can be monstrous now that the investment in Year 1 is complete.
The Jets can thank former general manager Mike Maccagnan, who swung the trade with Indianapolis to move up to No. 3 last year to take Darnold after the Giants passed on him at No. 2 and took Saquon Barkley. And while Maccagnan is no longer around to see Darnold’s impact, the Jets could be the beneficiary of one of the most important additions in franchise history.
There are sure to be difficult times ahead, and Darnold will make his share of mistakes. But if what we’re seeing now is the result of legitimate improvement from a talented player with a big arm, then the Jets have solved their biggest problem.