FLORHAM PARK, N.J. – It’s Thursday afternoon, which means Sam Darnold is walking into an interview room inside the Jets practice facility for a regularly scheduled appointment with the media. A microphone awaits, but the team’s starting quarterback doesn’t wait for it, narrating his path toward this very formal-looking lectern setup as he goes.
“I demand to be up here talking to you guys,” he quips. “I’m not talking in the locker room.”
Of course he is joking. The flash of self-importance (being someone who considers himself too big of a star to be limited to the confines of a locker room interview) runs counter to just about everything the second-year pro is about. But he does make an interesting point. As a rookie, Darnold would absolutely not have conducted his interview sessions here, where only then head-coach Todd Bowles made appearances to discuss the team. Last year, Darnold would have indeed been back in the locker room, same as every other player.
The change in setting is the decision of new head coach Adam Gase, who doesn’t seem nearly so caught up in ceremony as his predecessor. But he is absolutely caught up in Darnold, who as the face of the perpetually flailing Jets’ franchise comes more clearly into focus every week. Darnold has a presence – it’s felt in the interview room, it’s permeated the locker room, and most important of all, it’s obvious on the field.
Which begs the obvious, but decades-old question: Can he ever establish it in the AFC East? This is the Patriots’ personal playground, the division where opposing quarterbacks go to die, the domain of the 20-years-and-counting run by Tom Brady that we all know the 42-year-old ageless wonder has no desire or inclination to concede.
Sure, Darnold returned last Sunday from a three-week bout with mononucleosis and promptly led the previously moribund Jets to a stirring comeback win over the heavily-favored Cowboys. But come Monday night he gets to try, yet again, to have an impact on a division that has been won by the Patriots for 10 straight years, and only twice by other teams (the Dolphins in 2008 and the Jets in 2002) since Brady became the starter in 2001. Look anywhere you want – down in Miami at Josh Rosen, Ryan Tannehill or Ryan Fitzpatrick, up to Buffalo at Josh Allen, Tyrod Taylor or Ryan Fitzpatrick, or across to the Jets at Mark Sanchez, Geno Smith or (ahem) Ryan Fitzpatrick – pretenders all of them, contenders none of them.
But here comes Darnold, the third overall pick in the 2018 draft, the California kid with a certain sense of confidence in himself that is one of those early ingredients needed to fulfill the role of franchise quarterback, but also with the set of skills that is, in the long run, more important to the task.
“He has something that I’ve noticed, maybe you guys feel the same way when you’re around him, is he’s just a normal guy,” Gase said days after we saw how much easier it can be to call an offensive game plan when the man in the middle of the offensive action is actually capable of making plays.
“He has a swagger about him, but it’s not like he’s trying. He’s just naturally easy to talk to, not afraid to interact with other guys on the team and talk through things. There’s a confidence about him that’s not cocky but it’s just right where you would want it. And then he goes out and he plays well. I think just some of the things he naturally has, he doesn’t have to try. A lot of it is personality, he just comes across as one of those guys that’s genuine in what he says, and he’s got a great confidence about himself.”
Film breakdowns make it obvious how Darnold can make that happen on the field. He can move the pocket, confusing defenses. He can move his feet, deflecting offensive line issues. And he can make throws in tight windows, helping out his receivers. When he says things like he did this week – “Once we get all the guys back [from injury] . . . I think we’re unstoppable as an offense,” – he is building a profile of leadership among his teammates. They never sounded so happy as they were after his return.
From running back Le’Veon Bell: “It’s a lot different having your guy in there. He’s the leader of the offense. He’s a special player.”
From Robby Anderson, on catching a 92-yard touchdown last Sunday: “It was amazing to have my brother back out there. It makes a big difference.”
From left guard Alex Lewis: “Competitiveness, leadership, and he’s a captain for a reason. Having a guy like that is huge for us. He takes control of the offense and we just roll with it.”
The Patriots have known that feeling for years. Make that decades. But much as we joke in the way Jets’ safety Jamal Adams did this week (“Brady’s been playing for 50 years,” Adams said), Brady’s career must eventually come to an end. (Doesn’t it?) Might Darnold be ready to give him some decent competition on the way down that inevitable road?
“I think for us, when you get locked in on trying to break the dynasty or tear them down, that’s when you start losing control of yourself and losing control of your emotions during the game,” Darnold said. “For us it’s continuing to take it one game at a time and just focus on this game plan, what we need to do, the certain looks that we get, how we’re going to adjust to those and go about the game that way. Because if we get outside of ourselves, and try to take down Tom Brady, take down Belichick, those are all legit things, but for us it’s really just about focusing on what we need to do and how we need to execute.”
The division still belongs to the Patriots. At 6-0, with one win against each division opponent already, they aren’t likely to give it away yet. For all the deserved criticism aimed at each of those other franchises for failing for so long to find a long-term franchise QB, the Patriots deserve just as much praise for setting too high a bar to clear as they tried. Darnold’s only in his second year, but maybe, he’ll be the one who finally sticks.