EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - It would've been understandable if Jets fans wanted to be only cautiously optimistic that they had finally found their franchise quarterback. A decades-long search and far too many broken promises have left everyone with scars.
But the caution around Sam Darnold is probably gone now. He looked like a legitimate franchise quarterback on Friday night in his NFL debut.
The former USC quarterback, drafted third overall by the Jets, was outstanding, especially in the first half of the Jets' 17-0 win over the Atlanta Falcons. He played the final 2 ½ quarters and completed 13-of-18 passes for 96 yards and a touchdown. And that included completing 9-of-his-first 11 passes in the first half - and one of those two incompletions was a drop.
OK, it's only preseason and the Falcons' defense wasn't exactly at its best, nor did they spend a lot of time game-planning for the rookie quarterback. And it's true, in the second-half Darnold didn't do much as the Jets seemed to shut down their offense (he was just 4-for-7 for 22 yards).
But his performance was really about more than numbers. He did many things that were impressive beyond the dazzling stats.
For example, his second completion of the game came on a third-down play, when he stood strong in the pocket as it began to close around him, slid up inside, and fired an eight-yard pass to tight end Neal Sterling for a first down.
Or how about the resiliency he showed on his first touchdown drive. He threw what would've been his first touchdown pass if it hadn't bounced right off the hands of receiver Charles Johnson. Two plays later, he hit Johnson in the end zone again, only this time the receiver was called for offensive pass interference that pushed the Jets back to the 14.
How did Darnold respond? On the next play, he slipped up through the pocket to avoid the rush, rolled right and found Johnson again, this time in the front corner of the end zone for a touchdown and a 17-0 Jets lead.
Credit: Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY
Darnold looked confident. He looked comfortable. He looked like he was making most of the right reads. He showed an ability to get out of trouble and to make plays on the run. And when things went wrong, he bounced right back and didn't seem rattled at all.
There are three preseason games still to go, of course, and a lot of things could still happen. A few more performances like he put on in the second half will certainly slow his Hall of Fame train. But, considering the Jets played him for 38 minutes on Friday night, they are serious about giving him a chance to win the Opening Day starting job.
And Darnold is apparently serious about winning it. Meanwhile, here are some non-Darnold notes and observations from the Jets' preseason opener …
- He will be overshadowed by Darnold, but what a tremendous return for Teddy Bridgewater who was virtually out of action for two years after a devastating knee injury. He played beginning with the second series of the game and completed his first pass since Aug. 28, 2016. On his first drive, he went 4-for-5 for 37 yards, took a big hit and still completed the pass, completed a fourth-down pass, and threw a touchdown pass. Overall, in two series - both scoring drives - he completed seven of his eight passes for 85 yards. He showed no fear, patience in the pocket, the ability to move when necessary.
Basically, he proved he can still play, which brings up an interesting question: Can he play his way into the competition for the starting job? The way Darnold played, it's probably a moot point. Bridgewater has always been the insurance policy in case McCown falters and Darnold isn't ready, and neither of those seem likely. So, it remains hard to see him fitting in the Jets' plans. But if he plays well, it can't be ruled out. And if not, the 25-year-old should still be able to start for someone in the NFL.
- It's impossible not to like and admire veteran Jets QB Josh McCown. He barely played on Friday night, so the Jets could look at Bridgewater and Darnold and give them a chance to take his job. He knows Darnold is the future and it's only a matter of time before he's the Jets starter. Yet no one was cheering harder on the sidelines for Darnold than McCown. He was talking to him between series like a coach, and clapping and yelling for him during those series like he was a fan. That's why the Jets kept McCown around. Yes, they think he can still play. But he's a terrific guy and the perfect mentor for a young quarterback. There's no bitterness there at all.
- RB Isaiah Crowell, who has had a quiet camp, showed some nice explosion on the 16-yard touchdown pass he caught from Bridegwater - which was really a short pass on a crossing route that he ran most of the way in. Unfortunately, he took a big hit near the end and had to be evaluated for a concussion.
- RB Trenton Cannon, the Jets' sixth-round pick out of Virginia State, has had an impressive summer and intrigued the Jets with his speed. In this game, though, he also showed an ability to make defenders miss. He is lightning fast and he's going to be a problem if defenders don't get him down on the first attempt. With Elijiah McGuire out, Bilal Powell not playing much, and Crowell lost early with a possible concussion, Cannon played a lot and rushed 11 times for 40 yards. Oh, and yes, he fumbled two punts. He's struggled with that this summer. He may have trouble holding onto that job (no pun intended).
- DT Nathan Shepard, the Jets' third-round pick out of Fort Hays State, has been very good this summer and earned a starting job for the first preseason game at least. He didn't play much, but when he was in there, he seemed to get a good push off the line of scrimmage. A lot of people questioned that pick when it was made, since he's 24 and came from such a small college. But he's making believers out of a lot of people so far - including his teammtaes.