EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — When his football week started, Luke Falk was a practice squad quarterback who’d never thrown a professional pass. When it ended, Falk was the de facto starter for the Jets.
Welcome to the NFL.
“Yeah, a weird week,” the 24-year-old was saying inside the MetLife Stadium locker room Monday night, facing reporters after finishing out the Jets’ 23-3 loss to the Browns.
It’s about to get weirder. Now Falk is facing a showdown with one of his childhood idols, set to make what would be his first NFL start against Tom Brady and the Patriots Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium.
Not an ideal way to start, perhaps, but for Falk, it feels oddly appropriate. When he saw pick No. 199 of the 2018 NFL Draft was about to flash across the screen and then saw a Tennessee call coming into his cellphone, he understood the connection right away. Brady, of course, is famous for using the motivation of being the 199th pick in 2000 as motivation for his Super Bowl-winning, Hall of Fame-destined career.
“You grow up watching the guy, he’s a late-round draft pick, he spent some time [behind Drew Henson] at Michigan, I had a similar experience walking on at Washington State, so I felt like, ‘There’s a guy that went through some adversity, look what he’s been able to do,’ ” Falk said. “He’s been a source of inspiration for me and it’s been fun to watch him.
“I think any young quarterback admires what he’s been able to do. If my number’s called, it’d be cool to have the opportunity to go up against the Patriots.”
Amid the stunning quarterback attrition so far this NFL season, Falk is the next man up for the Jets. The shocking midweek loss of stud starter Sam Darnold to mononucleosis moved him to the active roster, but it was the gruesome ankle injury to veteran backup Trevor Siemian Monday night against the Browns that moved him into the pocket. With a weakened Darnold laid up for weeks and a broken Siemian out for the season after departing MetLife Stadium in a walking boot and with the aid of crutches, the ball appears to be his for the foreseeable future.
“A week ago I was on the practice squad, and tonight I’m standing in front of [the media] after playing in a game,” Falk said. “Definitely a weird series of unfortunate events for those two guys, and I just want to do the best that I can and help my team win.”
Oddsmakers don’t have much hope for that Sunday, already installing the Patriots as 20-point-plus favorites. And after getting an up-close look at the Jets Monday night, it only confirmed New England as the class of the AFC East (as well as the entire NFL). Even more, it revealed the legacy of the longevity of Brady. Since Brady took over as New England’s starter in 2001, the roll call of Jets quarterbacks to start against him goes from Hall of Famers to one-shot wonders.
From the final days of Vinny Testaverde to the relatively serene days of Chad Pennington, from the blink-and-you-miss-it appearance of Brooks Bollinger to the short rise of Kellen Clemens, from the Hall of Fame arm of Brett Favre to the infamous butt of a fumbling Mark Sanchez, from the confusing reign of Geno Smith to the reclaimed reign of Michael Vick, from the Harvard brain of Ryan Fitzpatrick to the coiffed hair of Bryce Petty, from the wise old sage Josh McCown to the young-gun bravado of Darnold, the Jets arrived Monday night with Siemian up front and Falk at his back.
“You never know in this game,” Falk said. “One play.”
Of course, it was one play that led to Brady taking over in 2001, subbing when longtime Patriots starter Drew Bledsoe was crushed by Mo Lewis of the Jets. And there was just as much skepticism about Brady back then, before he would become the six-time Super Bowl champion and all-time NFL quarterback.
He picked up infinite fans along the way, including a young kid in Utah who would move to California and eventually walk on at Washington State, become an all-conference starter, and get drafted by the Titans. Two transactions later, both with coach Adam Gase, first with the Dolphins and now with the Jets, that kid is prepping to start against Brady. After watching him complete 20 of 25 passes for 198 yards against Cleveland, Gase at least knows more than he did before about his next best option.
“I thought Luke did a really good job,” Gase said. “He started off kind of slow. I was just trying to ease him into the game a little bit.
“He is very confident. Once we got out of that first series, you could just tell he was calm. It was like we were at practice.”
Falk channeled that confidence, too.
“I think there’s a lot of learning to do,” he said. “I think there are some positives. I don’t think it’s as bad as what the score might show, but we definitely have to be better.
“I felt good. A play here, a play there, it’s really a different ballgame. I felt calm, cool, and collected and I just wish we made a few plays here and there.”
Who knows what his NFL future holds? It’s a brutal sport, for sure. But he seems to have the right personality to handle adversity. We saw it when he skipped the Senior Bowl to attend the funeral of college teammate Tyler Hilinski, who had been set to take over for him at QB before taking his own life (“Some things are bigger than football,” Falk told me). We hear it when he talks about the importance of acknowledging mental-health struggles inside the macho sports world. And we feel it when he pokes fun at his own long-held admiration for Brady.
The devotion only goes so far, particularly when it comes to the famously strict TB12 diet.
“Those stories are blown up,” he said. “I’m 24. I have pizza every now and then.”