Sam Darnold took a hard hit from his blindside and was driven face down into the MetLife turf. Darnold then limped off the field, striking fear in the hearts of all Jets fans and probably some members of the organization.
But on the very next series of Saturday night’s preseason loss to the Saints, Darnold showed the mental and physical toughness that have those same people believing this is the quarterback that will ultimately lead the franchise out of years of darkness.
Darnold led a touchdown drive, completing all three of his passes, including two brilliantly-thrown balls. He didn’t throw another pass after that. Adam Gase pulled Darnold from the game to keep him safe. But Darnold wanted to stay on the field. The Jets' competitive and confident second-year quarterback feels he’s ready for the real games to start.
“Definitely, yeah,” Darnold said. “I think our offense is antsy to get out there. Even for me sitting out the second half I kind of wanted to get in there and play. I didn’t like how we played in the first quarter. In the second quarter we kind of found our rhythm and then were out. I’m definitely curious to see how we would have responded and how we would have played the whole game.
“For me, personally, I’m definitely antsy to get going.”
The Jets still have one preseason game left, Thursday against the Eagles. But Darnold isn’t expected to play. He’ll spend the next two weeks sharpening his skills in practice, building more chemistry with the offensive line, running backs and receivers, and getting even more comfortable in Gase’s system.
Darnold has gone 17-for-25 for 211 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions in nine series this preseason. His passer rating is 120.6. And Darnold did it without playing behind his projected Week 1 starting offensive line or having Le’Veon Bell, who Gase held out of the preseason to keep him healthy.
“One of the guys that hasn’t played in the preseason is pretty good so that’s going to change a few things,” Gase said.
The Jets coach was referring to the offense overall, but Bell will help Darnold immensely when the Jets open up the regular season Sept. 8 at home against the Bills.
Ty Montgomery has played with the first team in place of Bell. Montgomery fumbled his first handoff Saturday night, but then caught a 2-yard touchdown pass from Darnold on a ball that was floated perfectly to the versatile back near the left pylon.
“The throw on the touchdown was really good,” Gase said. “Sometimes he makes some of these throws and I’m not really sure how he completes them.”
Gase isn’t the only one who has been impressed with Darnold. A future Hall of Fame quarterback has been watching Darnold from afar and spent some time with him during Super Bowl week. Saints quarterback Drew Brees believes Darnold is the right young man to lead the Jets.
“I’ve been impressed with him just from what I’ve seen and the way he’s handled everything,” said Brees, who saw him up close Saturday night. “It’s a tough position [with] a lot of hype and expectations and I think he’s handled it well. He’s only going to continue to improve and get better as they build this team around him, and all the other pieces as well. He’s got a ton of upside and a ton of opportunity.
“He seems like an extremely sharp kid who has a really bright future.”
The Jets see it the same way. Just this week Bell called Darnold “special” and he’s played with a future Hall of Fame QB as well in Ben Roethlisberger. Darnold still has a long way to go. But Gase has been happy with the strides Darnold has made from the first preseason game to the last one – the biggest one being how he can read and react on the fly.
“His ability to really control the line of scrimmage, know what adjustments he needs to make when he needs to make them,” Gase said. “It doesn’t always have to be in the play call. He has a lot of freedom at the line of scrimmage. He’s starting to get to the point where he’s really comfortable doing those type of things, getting in and out of certain plays. Every day we get to do something, and [if] he has one or two of those a day that’s beneficial to him.”