The arrival of a rookie quarterback sparks unbound hope like nothing else in professional football. It is for most franchises a source of unmitigated cheer — the sign of better times to come, the welcoming of a savior. For the New York Jets, it produces a healthy heap of trepidation. They are the franchise of Richard Todd and Browning Nagle, of Ken O’Brien and Geno Smith and Mark Sanchez. Other franchises take a quarterback in the first round, or shortly thereafter, and start dreaming of Super Bowls. The Jets do it and started wondering whether it will end with embarrassment or disappointment. Other franchises get Lombardi Trophies. They get butt fumbles.
The first six weeks of the season, then, have been an exercise in feeling what it is like be an organization permitted to have nice things. Sunday afternoon, Sam Darnold continued to chip away at the dread Jets fans have been conditioned to feel about their potential franchise quarterbacks. In a 42-34 victory over the Indianapolis Colts, Darnold completed 24 of 30 passes for 280 yards.
The Jets (3-3) won their second consecutive game, and even if they finish 3-7, the team will surpass last year’s win total. After three consecutive losses, Darnold bounced back with two consecutive wins in which the Jets surpassed 30 points. He still has deficiencies typical of youth — the Jets, for example, are at the bottom of the league in turning red-zone possessions into touchdowns, despite a solid running game. But he’s not overwhelmed, and he’s not letting Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield run away with the title of best rookie quarterback.
A 3-3 record and a couple home victories over the Broncos and Colts don’t make a career, and they don’t mean Darnold is going to deliver the Jets a Super Bowl. But Darnold’s early performance allows for promise, a quality constantly in short supply for the Jets. It also allows them to puff out their chests when confronting the team across town.
The Jets have their quarterback. The Giants have a mess. The Giants passed on Darnold so they could take Saquon Barkley with the second overall pick. They believed a generational running back could prop up Eli Manning for another couple seasons. They were right about Barkley’s ability, but wrong about Manning. Nothing could prop up Manning at this stage of his career. Now, the Giants have a broken team in the present and uncertainty in the future. If they don’t pick the right quarterback next April, they might be glimpsing what could have been in their own city for the next decade.
Darnold, the third overall pick out USC, provides the Jets reason to believe. His performance Sunday fell short of spectacular, especially by the standards of this season’s NFL. But it has to be understood in the context of Jets quarterbacking history. Before Sunday afternoon, a Jets quarterback completing 80 percent of his passes for at least 280 yards had happened three times. Geno Smith pulled it off in 2014, and Chad Pennington did it twice, in 2002 and 2007.
Sunday, against one of the NFL’s worst defenses, Darnold displayed steadiness and savvy for a 21-year-old who played only two college seasons. The Colts played Cover 2 defense and hoped to bait him into bad decisions. Aside from one interception, Darnold showed patience and accuracy. He completed passes to seven different receivers and took only two sacks. The Jets mostly settled for field goals — kicker Jason Myers booted seven, which was a franchise record. But the Jets also scored on eight consecutive possessions at one point.
“He took what they gave him,” Coach Todd Bowles said. “He understood what was going on. The game was slow for him.”
At a crucial moment, Darnold showed his advanced feel for the game. With 42 seconds left in the first half, the Jets took over on their 28, leading by a touchdown. A lot of coaches would have been content to kneel and take it into halftime with a rookie quarterback. Bowles trusted Darnold, and he repaid him.
Darnold started the drive with a five-yard pass. He hit Terrelle Pryor on a corner route for 22 yards, after the Jets used their final timeout. Darnold hit Robby Anderson for another nine yards, leading him out of bounds to stop the clock with 18 seconds left. Darnold knew he had enough time to complete a pass in bounds, but that it would require urgency.
“If I complete a ball in bounds,” Darnold told the huddle, “we got to go.”
With the Colts protecting the sidelines, Darnold hit Jermaine Kearse over the middle for another 22 yards. Darnold rallied the offense to the line and, with three seconds left, spiked the ball. Myers drilled a 32-yard field, and the Jets took a two-score lead into halftime. Out of the locker room, Darnold hit tight end Chris Herndon with a 32-yard dart for a touchdown. The Jets had seized full control.
The sequence allowed Jets fans to dream, which for them is a rare opportunity. At halftime, the Jets honored the 1968 Super Bowl champions. They Jets have not played in a Super Bowl since Joe Namath guaranteed victory over the Colts in Super Bowl III. Their quarterbacks in the five decades since have ranged from disastrous to adequate. Darnold may or may not change the course of the franchise. But after six games, he changed the Jets’ outlook. It is safe, for once, for them to look upon a quarterback — their quarterback — and hope.
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