DETROIT – The first pass was a disaster, a roll right, throw back left heave that is recipe for trouble in the NFL, even if you have an arm as strong as Sam Darnold. In the moment, though, Darnold thought he could pull it off, thought he could hit a streaking Bilal Powell for a big gain.
“I thought I had him,” Darnold said.
He didn’t. Detroit’s Quandre Diggs had it all the way, stepping in front of the route, snagging the ball out of the air and racing into the end zone.
“Oh shoot,” Darnold said.
Darnold’s first career pass was a pick-six and New York Jets fans could only fear this was a sign of the franchise’s latest bust, like some kind of green-and-white curse had inflicted the No. 3 overall pick from Southern California.
A funny thing happened, though. Darnold ran off the field, got to the sideline and had everyone on the Jets looking at him. Would he be crushed? Would he be more nervous than he admits he already was? Would he be on the verge of complete collapse? Did the Jets rush him into the starting lineup too soon?
Coach Todd Bowles met him and offered some encouragement.
“ ‘Don’t blink, the game just started,’ ” Bowles said. “ ‘We’re fine.’ ”
Darnold just nodded. He didn’t look concerned or rattled at all.
“He was fine,” Bowles said.
“It is what it is,” Darnold said. “Put it behind you and play the game.”
Play the game he did. Darnold completed seven of his next nine passes. He drove the Jets down the field for a touchdown, then a field goal. Then in the second quarter he hit Robby Anderson with a 41-yard dart for another touchdown, his first through the air.
Soon the rout was on, the Jets shocking Detroit and maybe the rest of the NFL with a 48-17 beatdown. As New York opening nights go, this was an all-timer. By the end of a victory so lopsided that Detroit fans fled early, the Jets fans in attendance gathered behind the team bench and began chanting his name.
“Sam … Darnold. Sam … Darnold.”
The victory wasn’t all Darnold but it was enough Darnold. He finished completing 16 of 21 passes for 198 yards and two touchdowns. He threw passes with power and accuracy. He showed excellent mobility. It wasn’t perfect. He wasted timeouts and got lost a few times, but considering this was a road game on “Monday Night Football” against a team that went 9-7 the past two seasons, it was all he could have wanted.
“On that interception I was pretty nervous, I’m not going to lie to you guys,” Darnold said. “But after that, you know I put it behind me. I think that after the crowd got really loud after that pick it was just, ‘Oh, shoot’ and then I was like, ‘OK, here we go.’
“You know, it can’t get much worse than that, so it was really that kind of thinking that was going on in my head and then just play it and knew that we had a good team,” Darnold continued. “We have a really, really good team, so I knew that if I just did my job, took what the defense gave me that I was going to be able to go out there and look back and have a successful game.”
These things happen. Tom Brady’s first pass at the University of Michigan was a pick-six. Peyton Manning threw three interceptions in his first NFL game and a rookie record 28 for the season.
With the reassurance of knowing the Jets would win easily, there was sentiment among the Jets that the pick-six might have actually helped him.
“I thought, ‘Well, he got that out of the way,’ ” veteran backup Josh McCown joked.
“He didn’t flinch, he didn’t even blink,” Bowles said. “Obviously, we got it out of the way and I can sit here and tell you that we planned that so he could get the jitters out, but we didn’t. He came back and nobody flinched on the sideline. He came back and played well.”
The Jets have been searching for a franchise quarterback for just about ever. Of late there have been some good ones (Chad Pennington) but not great ones. There have been some flashes in the pan (Mark Sanchez) but nothing that stuck. There have been stopgaps (Brett Favre) and journeymen (Ryan Fitzpatrick).
Mostly, though, there have been losses as the team sat surrounded by Super Bowl winners, Brady up in New England, Eli Manning across the way with the Giants.
The Jets were so intent on getting a franchise guy in last year’s quarterback-rich draft, they traded three second-round picks to Indianapolis to move up from No. 6 overall to No. 3. Then they watched Cleveland take Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield at No. 1 and the Giants grab running back Saquon Barkley at No. 2.
That left Darnold for them. Sixty minutes into his career, it’s unlikely they’d do anything different.
“I always had a lot of confidence in him,” wide receiver Quincy Enunwa said.
Most important, Darnold has confidence in himself. The opponents will get tougher than a Lions team that looked hapless. There will be more turnovers to come. He just shrugged. He knows all of that.
As he walked out of the Jets’ locker room, he met up with his mother and father. He posed for a picture with them as mom tried to hold back tears of pride. His dad simply beamed, a stack of game programs under his arm he was taking home as mementos.
The game had started as bad as bad can be. It ended with laughs, smiles and chants from Jets fans echoing around Ford Field, everyone dreaming this just might be the start of something big.
Sam Darnold didn’t blink.
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