Sam Darnold’s first ever NFL snap couldn’t have gone any worse.
The former USC gunslinger faked a handoff, dropped back, evaded pressure and threw an ill-advised pass across his body for running back Bilal Powell. Detroit Lions cornerback Quandre Diggs jumped the route and snatched the ball, taking the interception 37 yards to the end zone.
7-0 Lions. 0-1 Darnold.
On social media, the uproar was fast and furious.
“I’ll say it again,” Fox Sports personality Skip Bayless tweeted. “Sam Darnold was a try-too-hard turnover machine at USC and, 1st play of his NFL career, pick six. Too bad. Predictable.”
What Bayless didn’t predict was how Darnold would respond. Instead of sulking over the costly mistake, the third overall pick went to work.
Following the pick-six, Darnold completed 16 of his next 20 passes and tossed a pair of touchdowns. The Jets’ defense forced five turnovers of their own. New York would win 48-17 — the franchise’s most points scored since 2012, and its most ever on the road.
In his historic debut, Darnold displayed an uncanny level of mental toughness. He also showed why it’s a bad idea to write off young quarterbacks too early.
According to NFL Research, the last two quarterbacks to throw pick-sixes on their first career pass attempts were Brett Favre and Jameis Winston. One is a Hall of Famer. The other is currently inactive due to suspension. Darnold’s career could go in a myriad directions, but in the shining bright lights of Monday Night Football, he controlled his own destiny.
Scouts use metrics like velocity, height, hand-size and arm talent to evaluate quarterbacks. The Bills’ Josh Allen was thrust into the top 10 because of raw throwing power. Seattle’s Russell Wilson fell to the third round because he was too short.
Darnold falls somewhere in between this madness. Although he possesses the burly body of an NFL quarterback, many deride his footwork, and analysts are skeptical of the unconventional release that bogs down his prototypical arm strength.
He’s not the perfect archetype of an NFL quarterback, but Darnold’s mental fortitude separates him from the pack. It’s the same characteristic that enabled him to mount a 14-point fourth quarter comeback in the 2017 Rose Bowl and lead a game-tying drive against Texas with under a minute left. He has the it factor.
“I could sit here and tell you we planned it that way so he could get the jitters out,” said Jets head coach Todd Bowles about Darnold’s first career pass. “But we didn’t.”
On the field, Darnold’s play is either exhilarating or exasperating. For every mind-boggling interception, he’ll deliver a dazzling dime — like the 41-yard touchdown bomb he threw to Robby Anderson in the first quarter. But whatever happens on the field, he remains mentally unshakable. That bodes well for a long NFL career — more so than any 40-time or passing drill.
“It is what it is,” said Darnold, in typical laid-back fashion, of his opening mistake. “[You] put it behind you and play the game, so that’s really what I did. And I thought the whole team responded really well.”
Here are two things I enjoyed in the NFL’s opening week:
Journeyman quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick started for the Buccaneers on Sunday, in the wake of Winston’s three-game suspension. No one expected the 35-year-old to lead Tampa Bay to a win over New Orleans. The Buccaneers entered the Big Easy as 10-point underdogs.
But Fitz Magic arrives when you least expect it. He torched the supposedly stout Saints’ defense for a career-high 417 passing yards and four total touchdowns. Tampa Bay won 48-40 in stunning fashion.
The game served as a friendly reminder to never count out Fitz. He’s experienced a mercurial career, playing for seven teams in 14 years, but he’s always capable of producing a monster game when called upon — as evidenced by his 14 career 300-yard games.
“I’m never surprised at anything I do,” Fitzpatrick said after the game.
You beautiful bearded legend.
The Cleveland Browns did the unthinkable on Sunday: They didn’t lose!
While a 21-21 tie with Pittsburgh probably wasn’t what they had in mind, I’m excited about this team going forward. Cleveland is loaded with young talent on defense. Second-year defensive end Myles Garrett terrorized the Steelers with two forced fumbles and two sacks, and rookie cornerback Denzel Ward picked off a pair of Ben Roethlisberger passes.
Shaky quarterback play from the usually reliable, if unspectacular, Tyrod Taylor hampered Cleveland’s chances in the end.
But with No. 1 overall draft pick Baker Mayfield waiting in the wings, it’s a matter of time before the Browns develop a consistent passing game.
A win is a win. But for a team with a 1-31 record over the last two seasons, a tie is also a win.
Trevor Denton is a junior majoring in broadcast and digital journalism. His column, “T-Time,” runs every other Wednesday.