Sam Darnold’s performance on Monday night has left the football world buzzing after the former USC standout led the New York Jets to a 48-17 trouncing of the Detroit Lions in his NFL debut.
From immediate heartbreak to ultimate triumph, Sam Darnold’s NFL career began with a bang and finished with an eruption.
It was supposed to be a culmination of all of Darnold’s hard work to this point in his football journey. A celebratory moment as he took his first snap as an NFL quarterback in front of his friends, family and millions of football fans around the country quickly turned into a nightmare as his first pass was intercepted by Detroit Lions cornerback Quandre Diggs and brought into the end zone for a touchdown.
This seems pretty close to the worst start to an NFL career anyone could imagine. The pressure that must’ve been felt as Darnold trotted back onto the field, stunned, after a disaster of an opening possession if you want to call it that.
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But just looking at the play doesn’t do the pressure justice.
More on that later but first, let’s take a look at Darnold’s final numbers from his debut. The Jets rookie finished the day 16-of-21 for a pedestrian 198 yards throwing for two touchdowns and one interception, the interception being the dreaded pick-six from a moment ago.
However, it’s not the final stat line that stood out from Darnold’s introductory performance. Nor was it his 41-yard deep ball to Robby Anderson as nice as it was. Instead, his mental toughness is what stands out most following his first NFL start.
Darnold has been consistently praised for his ability to respond well to adversity and we saw glimpses of that in the preseason but nothing could have prepared him for what would happen when he finally took the field for a regular season appearance.
On his first NFL play, not his first pass but his first play, Darnold was intercepted by the aforementioned Diggs who proceeded to take the ball into the end zone for a Lions touchdown. To set the scene a little more, this is a man who is just 21-years old, the youngest quarterback to start a season opener since 1970 and the second-youngest to ever start an NFL game.
This young man has just gained the ability to rent a car in most states.
Not only that, but he has also been entrusted with turning around a franchise that has been starved at the quarterback position for decades now. A franchise that has seen failure after failure from their supposed quarterbacks of the future, so much so that a large percentage of the fanbase has become allergic to optimism instead opting for the calming sensation of pessimism.
Oh and this franchise is located in New York, the single largest sports market in the entire world. This place is intimidating for your average, everyday citizen let alone an individual under as much public scrutiny as an NFL quarterback.
This is all information that Darnold was aware of before he even took the field. Now imagine knowing all of this attention, all of this responsibility, the hope of an entire franchise resting on your shoulders.
And imagine from Darnold’s perspective how he must have felt after that first pass.
The expected backlash would have likely been on the minds of many. First impressions are everything in the world of sports and he had just blown his one opportunity. On primetime football, in front of an entire country of people watching, he had just embarrassed himself, his team, and his fanbase.
Only none of these thoughts went through Darnold’s head.
Or if they did, they never reached the surface.
Darnold came back and two drives later led the Jets to their first score of the game. The USC product looked completely unfazed by the shameful moment that had occurred just minutes prior. Instead, he simply zoned out the thoughts of negativity in his head. He just came back and did what he would always do.
This isn’t something rookie quarterbacks do. Heck, this isn’t something most veteran quarterbacks routinely do. This is something typically reserved for a select few signal-callers in the NFL that belong to an exclusive club.
Some call it elite.
Is it way too early to be making any kind of declarations about Darnold’s future? Absolutely.
By no means has Darnold proven anything other than the fact that he is a young quarterback with a seemingly bright future. But the seeds have been planted. The seeds of stardom have been sowed into the earth and the flower is already beginning to bud.
The winds of adversity may try to halt the growing process but there may be no adversity gale stronger than what just occurred on Monday night. With the odds stacked against him in every conceivable way, with pressure mounting from every possible direction, Darnold found a way to block it out and persevere.
Welcome to the NFL Sam Darnold.