ORCHARD PARK — What we know about Sam Darnold so far is a whisper here, a whisker there, a sign of hope over here, a spasm of concern over there. In two years as a starting quarterback, he has shown just enough skill to get the imagination whirring and displayed just enough worrisome tendencies to …
ORCHARD PARK — What we know about Sam Darnold so far is a whisper here, a whisker there, a sign of hope over here, a spasm of concern over there. In two years as a starting quarterback, he has shown just enough skill to get the imagination whirring and displayed just enough worrisome tendencies to keep those aspirations at arm’s length.
“I’m more at home in this job than I’ve ever felt before,” Darnold said a few weeks ago, and of course that’s what you expect him to say. Show me a quarterback who admits, “I’m not quite sure how I’ll take to the job,” and I’ll show you a guy who’s going to be a high school offensive coordinator in a year.
But it should feel more like home for Darnold. This is Year 3, and by Year 3 we ought to have an idea of who a quarterback is, and what he can be.
When Joe Namath entered his third year, in 1967, he was still better known for the $427,000 contract he’d signed and for the llama rug in his Manhattan apartment than for being a championship cornerstone. Across his first two years, he had 37 touchdowns and 42 interceptions while completing 48 percent of his passes. Compared to that, Darnold’s two-year numbers of 36 TDs/28 picks/59.9 percent are downright … well, Namathian.
Then, in Year 3, came the epiphany. Namath became the first quarterback in history to throw for over 4,000 yards. He became a star because of his accomplishments on Sunday afternoon instead of Saturday night. And a year later, that translated into a shiny football trophy for him and all his friends in green.
But it can go the other way, too. After two years, it would have been hard to fathom that the Mark Sanchez Era had far more yesterdays on the ledger than tomorrows. He’d led the Jets to back-to-back AFC Championship game appearances and, if his numbers — 29/33/54.4 — weren’t indicative of a young Manning (either one), there hardly seemed reason for concern that the roof was about to collapse.
Except the roof did collapse. There was no noticeable improvement. With his supporting cast not nearly as deep in 2011 as it previously had been, Sanchez couldn’t shoulder the load and carry the burden. The Jets were 8-8 that season. A year later came the Buttfumble. A year after that came a catastrophic injury in the Snoopy Bowl against the Giants. And that was that.
At three years, there is no longer any reason to qualify anything as a small sample size. At three years, it ought to be easy to spot where the trend line is going. That isn’t always sacrosanct: Back in the day, it took Jim Plunkett three teams and nine years to find his star. More recently, Ryan Tannehill entered last year as a six-year chronic disappointment and left it a borderline All-Pro.
Still, the Jets crave a sign, one way or another.
And starting Sunday, at Bills Stadium in the Buffalo suburbs, Darnold will start giving them clarity. He is still not blessed with a surplus of weapons, but part of what the Jets will be looking for will be how he is able to create chemistry where none may now exist with his faceless receiving corps. Can he reestablish a connection with tight end Chris Herndon? Can he maximize his veteran running backs, Le’Veon Bell and Frank Gore?
Can he carry himself as a cornerstone even if the victories are fleeting?
“I want this challenge,” Darnold said. “I want this responsibility. I want to be a guy that my teammates know they can count on.”
In Year 3, Chad Pennington beat Peyton Manning in a playoff game, 41-0. In Year 3, Ken O’Brien led the Jets to a 10-1 start before his teammates started dropping like bowling pins and he wound up getting knocked silly and, ultimately, to the bench. In Year 3, Geno Smith didn’t pay IK Enemkpali $600 he owed him and wound up drinking his meals through a straw for a while.
Year 3 has been awfully eventful for Jets quarterbacks. It will undoubtedly be that for Darnold, one way or another. The Jets only have their immediate and long-range futures riding on what that outcome is.