Fourteen years ago there was a young quarterback in New York who had struggled through an up-and-down rookie season. He showed flashes of his potential, but not nearly enough to convince everyone he would someday be the man to lead his franchise.
Then in Week 17, Eli Manning got the ball with 1:41 remaining and drove the Giants down the field for a game-winning drive capped by a 3-yard Tiki Barber touchdown run. The Giants beat the Cowboys 28-24 that day and it seemed like the moment that Manning arrived.
"It gives us great hope," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said that day. "We look at the price we had to pay for that and see rewards are on the way."
Time will tell if what happened Sunday to Jets rookie Sam Darnold turns out to be the turning point in his development. But what he did at the end of the game sure had a similar effect. He got the ball in his hands with 2:25 remaining, trailing 23-20 to the Buffalo Bills. He then marched the Jets down the field for a 1-yard Elijah McGuire touchdown run that gave the Jets a 27-23 win.
"It gives you hope for the future," Jets receiver Robby Anderson said. "It's as bright as the summer sun."
Forgive his hyperbole, but wasn't that what this season was always supposed to be about? It was the season of Sam Darnold, a chance for the Jets to see if they really did find their long-awaited franchise quarterback. It was all about his development, with an eye on contending in 2019.
So it's not about the numbers and it's not about the wins. It's about the little things that give the franchise hope for their future, something they haven't had a lot of in recent years.
And Darnold provided plenty of reasons for hope on Sunday. Start with the fact that he was playing for the first time since he injured his right foot a month ago, and he battled through it after aggravating the injury on the third play of the game. No one would've blamed the Jets for wrapping Darnold in bubble wrap in the locker room at that point. Instead, he came out and played.
He was at his best late, too. He even showed off a little of his magic early in the fourth quarter, when he made the best play of the season -- a broken play where he scrambled right to get away from the pass rush, turned back to the left, and somehow threw a 7-yard touchdown pass to Anderson that tied the game at 20 with 12:06 remaining.
It also came one series after Darnold threw a terrible interception deep in Buffalo territory, showing his composure and ability to bounce back.
But it's the final drive that gave the greatest reason for hope. Not every quarterback has the poise to lead a game-winning drive in the final two minutes, and it certainly is special for a rookie to do it at 21 years old. And he didn't just go along for the ride either. He was 3-for-5 for 52 yards, including a beautiful, 37-yard pass down the sideline to Anderson that put the Jets at the Buffalo 5.
He also had a gutsy run on third-and-goal from the 4 where he nearly lunged into the end zone (and nearly lost a fumble) before his knee was ruled down at the Buffalo 1. The final play was a 1-yard touchdown run by McGuire, and all Darnold did was hand the ball off. But he still gets credit for the rest of the drive, and for not making a big mistake along the way.
Who knows what's going to happen with Darnold over the final three games? The hope, of course, is that his arrow continues to point up and that the final drive on Sunday was just the beginning of great things to come. Time will tell. But for one moment, one drive, one resilient quarter of football, the Jets could see some of the things that a young Manning once showed the Giants.
In a franchise quarterback's rookie season, nothing is more important than seeing that the player has a little magic mixed in with his talent. It brings hope to everyone around him. And it proves that he really does have what it takes.