Luke Falk never handed the ball off to Le’Veon Bell before last Monday night’s game. Not once in practice. Falk usually was playing with the Jets’ third-team offense.
Things sure have changed quickly and dramatically for Falk and the Jets.
Falk will make his first NFL start Sunday against the Patriots. He’ll lead a heavily undermanned team into Foxborough and try to beat the Super Bowl champs, outsling Tom Brady and withstand everything Bill Belichick throws at him. But Falk doesn’t appear daunted or overwhelmed by this, and those closest to him aren’t surprised.
“He’s always done a pretty good job of being even-tempered and kind of controlling his emotions,” Falk’s coach at Washington State, Mike Leach, said by phone. “He had a lot of comebacks in his career and when he went in that last drive knowing full well it was the last drive, he was always very composed and did a good job.”
These are the Patriots, though. Not Stanford, Oregon or Cal. But Falk, who walked on at Washington State, has a pretty good track record of beating the odds and handling himself on the big stage and in big moments.
Falk threw for 471 yards and five touchdowns in his first game in Leach’s Air Raid offense. He posted seven career fourth-quarter comeback wins and left Washington State as the Pac-12’s all-time leader in touchdown passes, passing yards and completions. He ranks eighth in Division I history in passing yards (14,481) and 10th in TD passes (119).
“He manages the game extremely well,” Leach said. “I think he stays even-tempered under pressure extremely well. He’s accurate, which I think that’s the most important thing for a quarterback. He’s a crazy student of the game, almost to the point where it can be frustrating for others because he’s a guy walking out of a dark building after everybody’s been gone for an hour, studying film.”
Falk was drafted in the sixth round by the Titans in 2018 — pick No. 199, just as Brady, his idol, was 18 years earlier. After Tennessee cut Falk, Miami signed him and he spent last season with Adam Gase on the Dolphins’ practice squad.
Falk was on the Jets’ scout team until Sam Darnold was diagnosed with mono last week. He was elevated to the No. 2 quarterback and made his NFL debut after Trevor Siemian suffered a season-ending ankle injury Monday against Cleveland.
Gase was impressed with how Falk handled himself. He went 20-for-25 for 198 yards, led a drive that resulted in a field goal (the only points for the Jets) and got the team into the red zone twice (they came up empty both times).
Gase believes in Falk. “He’s confident in himself,” he said. “He knows the offense. He tries to do a good job of communicating everything. Very quick on his feet. Very smart. He got to some checks where I don’t know if any of us expected that to happen and him to be that aggressive when he got in the game. But I’m sure he was saying, ‘Nobody probably thinks I should be out here anyways, so I’m just going to play it the way I should.’
“In his mind, he knows how he needs to play, he knows how he feels about his skill set. The guys around him believe in him. He has a good way about him. He controls the huddle. There’s a confidence there when he calls a play. Guys feel like, ‘Hey, this guy knows what he’s talking about.’ ”
Gase said he was too “cautious” with Falk against the Browns and “held him back.” He plans to open up the offense a little more Sunday.
Falk is very comfortable with the system after being in it last year, and Darnold said Falk knows it better than he does. That should help him somewhat when he faces Belichick’s defense.
“He’s going to make it challenging. He knows that it’s a young guy’s first start in their stadium,” Gase said. “You’re talking about a coach that’s basically one of the innovators of defensive football.”
This may be Falk’s only start; Darnold hopes to return when the Jets come out of their bye in Week 5. But the Jets hope Falk can have success similar to that of another former Washington State quarterback who was taken in the sixth round.
Rookie Gardner Minshew, who replaced Falk at Washington State, stepped in for the Jaguars after Nick Foles injured his shoulder. Minshew led Jacksonville to its first win Thursday against the Titans.
It’s Falk’s turn to try to do the same, but against a dynasty.
“You have to realize it’s just football,” Falk said. “I have been playing this sport for a long time. Obviously not at this level. But you have to keep the simple things simple, go out and execute the game plan and put the ball in play. Ultimately, you got to focus on the small things and not get wrapped up in the big picture.”
Leach has been texting with Falk and said he’s “just checking in,” but he also is giving him his usual advice: Keep simple things simple. Do what you do. Focus on yourself and go to your reads.”
Leach believes Falk is ready for this challenge.
“I know he’s excited,” he said. “We’re all excited. I’m real excited for him.
“I thought it would eventually happen because I thought he’d be in the league, I thought he’d get to play, I thought he was under-drafted and I thought he’d do well once he got there. Under the best of circumstances, New England’s really challenging. He needs to just worry about being the best player that he can be and making them the best team they can be.”