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On the very first snap of his NFL career, the second-youngest starting quarterback in modern NFL history made a terrible decision by throwing a bloated chip shot across the field that was intercepted and returned for a touchdown.
At that point, it was fight or flight for Sam Darnold, the New York Jets’ No. 3 overall pick.
He fought, he gained redemption. He fought more, gained more redemption. He kept fighting, and at a certain point, it felt as though he and the long-suffering Jets were rubbing it in.
In a remarkable showing of mental strength and physical prowess, Darnold completed all but four of the 20 passes he threw after that career-opening interception Monday night, accumulating 198 yards and two touchdowns. Despite the pick-six, he finished with a 116.8 passer rating. He completed three of his four passes beyond 15 yards, and he was a perfect 4-for-4 on third-down throws while also scrambling for a conversion on a third-down play early on a first-half scoring drive.
Sam Darnold with a rope for his first career TD pass 🔥 📺 ESPN #NYJvsDET https://t.co/Em43cuP2LA
The former USC star led six scoring drives in total as the underdog Jets blew out the Detroit Lions 48-17 on the road, with Darnold outplaying veteran opposing signal-caller Matthew Stafford in embarrassing fashion.
The 21-year-old wasn’t perfect on Monday night, and he won’t be perfect this season. He’ll face fiercer defenses (the Lions didn’t bring much heat without star pass-rusher Ziggy Ansah), he’ll receive less support (the Jets defense recorded five interceptions including a pick-six, and they scored on special-teams) and he’ll eventually suffer growing pains (every young quarterback does).
But Darnold’s performance in Detroit confirmed that the Jets made the right call by installing him as their starter despite the fact he turned the ball over 22 times with the Trojans in 2017 and would be the youngest Week 1 starting quarterback since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.
Darnold’s nightmarish maiden play might have been a blessing in disguise, because his response confirmed that he didn’t leave his trademark poise and fortitude in Southern California.
“Doesn’t get shaken by in-game mistakes,” noted Lance Zierlein in his NFL.com scouting report on Darnold.
“He’s got the ability to create big-play opportunities multiple ways while showing the amnesia to forget previous failures in order to still perform at a high level,” wrote Steve Palazzolo in his Pro Football Focus scouting report.
I’d say so.
“On that interception, I was pretty nervous,” Darnold said after the game, per the Associated Press (h/t ESPN.com). “After that, I put it behind me.”
Mike Greenberg @Espngreeny
What an answer. Darnold looks like he’s aged a year since that first play. #Jets
That resilience is surely a big reason why the Jets made him their first top-three pick at the quarterback position since taking Joe Namath with the top selection in the 1965 AFL draft, and it’s certainly a promising sign of what the long-term future holds for a rebuilding team that hasn’t sniffed a Super Bowl since Namath made his guarantee half a century ago.
But what about the short-term future? What about 2018?
It’s human nature to overreact to particularly strong and/or inept debuts, but consider that…
1. The Jets have a weak schedule, in a shallow division, in the lesser of the two conferences. Wild-card spots should be completely up for grabs in the AFC this season, just as they were when the Tennessee Titans and Buffalo Bills made the playoffs despite single-digit win totals and negative points differential figures in 2017.
2. They’ll be favored in their Week 2 home opener against the Miami Dolphins, and that should also be the case for their Week 3 road matchup with the Cleveland Browns. Even if they aren’t as hot in those games as they were Monday night, they should start 3-0.
3. They were really hot Monday night, so much so that it’s hard to believe this team hasn’t turned over a new leaf. Their 48 points were a franchise record for a road game, a lot of those points came directly or indirectly from a talented young defense, and Darnold actually appears to have plenty of high-upside weapons.
Third-year linebacker Darron Lee (23 years old) and second-year safety Jamal Adams (22) look like emerging superstars in support of stud defensive lineman Leonard Williams and his underrated sidekick, Steve McLendon. Veterans Henry Anderson, Avery Williamson, Morris Claiborne and Trumaine Johnson are solid puzzle pieces, too.
Bleacher Report NFL @BR_NFL
This Jets defense is a problem. 5 INTs and counting (via @NFL) https://t.co/XlyQ5sn2Ed
And on the other side of the ball, backs Isaiah Crowell and Bilal Powell have the look of a strong backfield duo, while the Jermaine Kearse-less receiving corps didn’t miss a beat Monday night thanks to superb efforts from Darnold favorite Quincy Enunwa, big playmaker Robby Anderson and matchup nightmare Terrelle Pryor.
Imagine how much better this team can become as Darnold develops and those new-look offensive and defensive units get more acclimated. Wait until they get Kearse and second-year starting safety Marcus Maye back in the lineup.
They’ll face larger obstacles than a Lions team that seemed to be unaware their regular-season started on Monday night, but they handed Detroit a seven-point head start on the road and still came away with a 31-point victory.
It wasn’t a fluke. It was an indication that an improving team has taken the next step. They’ve got a quarterback now, and they’re confident.
Every year, somebody comes out of nowhere to make a playoff push. Why not the Jets?
For the first time in nearly a decade, there isn’t an easy answer to that question.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.