FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- It was 16 years ago, but the memory is still fresh for Jets quarterback Josh McCown: the feeling of being overwhelmed in his first NFL preseason game.
"That first series it felt like they had 15 guys on the defense," McCown recalled on Monday. "There were people everywhere. I wasn't processing very good. At all."
It's a long way from the meeting rooms and practices of training camp to the first live action for NFL rookie, and that's especially true for quarterbacks. That's why the preseason games, which begin for the Jets at the Meadowlands on Friday night, will be so important for first-round pick Sam Darnold. Everything he's done so far has impressed everyone in the organization, in some cases beyond their expectations.
But his ability to win the Week 1 starting job will almost certainly hinge on his ability to impress them just as much in the games.
"It's very different," McCown said. "I've seen guys over the years, guys that are great classroom guys, they know everything the coach is asking them, but they come out here and they drop back and it just doesn't materialize for them. And it's frustrating. It's hard. You obviously must take it from the class room to the field."
The good news is that so far Darnold has been terrific on the field, whether it's in a regular practice or even the extended action he saw Saturday night in the Jets' Green & White scrimmage. He has impressed coaches and teammates not just with his athletic ability and arm, but also with his mind -- the way he reads the defense, makes the right reads and even audibles at times to the right play.
He's still No. 3 on the depth chart behind the 39-year-old McCown and Teddy Bridgewater, but he clearly will be given the chance to move up. At Monday's practice, he and Bridgewater took most of the reps -- a strong indication that they'll see most, if not all, of the action against the Atlanta Falcons.
Darnold could end up playing a full half. And McCown isn't alone in saying "I have high expectations that he'll go out and play well."
"Sam's going to be fine," Bridgewater added. "That guy, he's cool. He's a cool guy. Seems like a guy you can't break. And that's what you want as a quarterback. He's even-keeled. He makes throws and it's like 'Man, this guy, he's the real deal.' He gets it."
Even Darnold can't hide the fact that he's starting to get it.
"I definitely feel a lot more comfortable calling plays in the huddle and then executing them," he said. "Obviously I'm not exactly where I want to be. There's always growth that needs to happen. But I'm real excited with where I'm at."
Things will be different on Friday, though. And not just because, as he said, "This will be the first time that we're able to get hit. There's no security blanket on us." He'll also be seeing a defense he hasn't seen day after day, with disguised coverages and blitzes from plenty of different angles. When a rookie quarterback experiences the NFL for the first time, he experiences what former Jets quarterback Boomer Esiason once called "The Ghost Syndrome."
"It's when you think you saw something that didn't happen," Esiason said years ago. "You think there's a player standing in a certain spot, then when you look at the film the next day you say, 'Damn, I thought … well, I guess not.' It's all of that indecision and anxiety wrapped into one."
And there's more. As Darnold explained when he was asked what his biggest transition has been to the NFL: "Speed of the game. But also being able to call plays in the huddle, being able to process all that information at the line of scrimmage, going up to the line of scrimmage with two plays … Just knowing all that processing, all that information and making the best decision, but also throwing the ball accurately and on time. So there's a lot that goes into it."
Yes there is, and the Jets are confident he can handle it all. They are more convinced than ever that they made the right call in making him their Quarterback of the Future. But how quickly that future comes is up to him and will be determined by what happens in live action.
Even Jets head coach Todd Bowles made that clear when asked how realistic it was that Darnold, at age 21, could vault over two veteran quarterbacks.
"You've got to play the preseason games," he said. "We'll let them play, then after the fourth preseason game, sometime that week I'll make my decision."
Darnold could make it an easy decision one way or the other. It all depends on how he plays, beginning Friday night.