Is Sam Darnold going to save the Jets? Who knows? Will he save … the world? It’s still too early to tell. But to all of the Jets fans out there who hope to protect themselves from the continued emotional horror that is rooting for whichever unfortunate individual has been shackled with the burden of quarterbacking this godforsaken franchise, we say: Life is too short. Darnold is audibling at practice! He’s throwing three touchdowns on a single preseason drive! His jawline could clog the Hudson River! So, rather than tempering the hysteria emanating from the Garden State, we’re diving right in. Welcome to Darnold Day!
Somehow, those were two of the first words Sam Darnold said in September 2016 after he was handed the USC starting quarterback job three games into the season. He was talking about the situation of the guy he was replacing: Max Browne, a redshirt junior who had stuck around Los Angeles waiting for the job to be his. After two embarrassing losses, it no longer was. “It’s nothing between us,” Darnold assured the reporters with a doe-eyed innocence and a floppy head of hair wet with sweat. “We’re going to try to stay really good friends. If not we’re going to just stay friends, you know?”
Of course the two of them would stay friends because that’s what quarterback competitions are really about: the friends the QBs make along the way. Eh, not really. But hearing Darnold’s earnest wish made you at least think that their storybook friendship—complete with matching backpacks and scooters—could continue.
The 19-year-old Darnold imbued USC’s season with a combination of thrill and competence all the way to a dramatic Rose Bowl victory over Penn State. Browne transferred to Pittsburgh and went undrafted this year. This past December, Pittsburgh received another transfer quarterback: Ricky Town—the five-star recruit who had to transfer to Arkansas from USC in 2015 because he realized he would never get the starting job. Even after a redshirt year in 2015, it was clear that the position was going to be Darnold’s.
“What do you think you bring to this offense that differentiates you?” a reporter asked to conclude the presser the day Darnold was officially named the starter. The quarterback took a pause.
“Um, you know, I’m not really sure.”
And so, at one of the most storied high-profile programs in the country, this is how the Darnold era began. Two years later, he’s a Jet in the ever-bright lights of New York City, the latest hope for a franchise quarterback. Darnold wasn’t exactly made for the spotlight—but in an ironic twist, it has continued to find him throughout his career.
I covered Darnold’s first year as a starter at USC, and it felt like a Friday Night Lights season when everything went right for the quarterback who had to take over in the middle of the season. Sure, Darnold was a well-touted recruit, but it didn’t make sense that a 19-year-old kid could be this good, this fast. Yet once he snapped the ball, it all clicked into place even as he careened his gangly body around the field like a chicken with its head cut off. The chains moved, USC won, and that’s all that mattered.
The savior-like reputation he earned for himself in Los Angeles also handed him something he wasn’t exactly ready for: the attention that came with it. Whereas on the field, it seemed like he grew in size with every dart he threw on the run, in front of a microphone he shrunk, answering questions like he was playing a football-cliché-themed game of Mad Libs. “Always ready for my number to be called,” “just taking it play by play,” “going with what the defense gives you,” and so on. The ums were plenty, and in classic Southern California surfer-dude fashion (as Darnold told me once, he never surfed, he just “liked the vibe”), so were the likes and you knows.
His comments never felt disingenuous or disinterested, just dull—but that’s also what made them authentic. Darnold didn’t fit the archetype of the typical USC quarterback and didn’t want to. Even when he gained notoriety after his first season, he tried to avoid it, such as by ordering in food rather than going out. While his blandness defined whatever happened off the field, the reckless confidence manifested itself on the field. The paradox worked to his benefit.
“That’s kind of how I always am or have been. It’s a blessing in disguise. I’ve never really thought about it,” he said during the infamous 2016 run. “You know cameras are going to be on you, after a touchdown or an interception. Yeah, I think about it, but at the same time, it’s who I am and I’m not trying extra hard. I just try to be calm.”
As his teammates would tell you, Darnold would display emotion while playing video games or pickup basketball—but almost never on the football field or the sideline. Soon, the dichotomy between placid and aggressive merged into a narrative: Darnold, as the calm, cool, collected, ice-in-his-veins quarterback. He won nine straight games to finish his first season, including that Rose Bowl. When the winning field goal crossed the posts and the stadium descended into pandemonium, he ran and cracked a smile, Then he did an interview with ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi.
“Sam, we talked over and over about the fact that it’s almost hard to believe you’re a freshman. How would you describe what this game was like for you?”
“Umm … it was amazing.”
The results spoke for themselves better than he ever could have.
“You know Sammy, he’s Kawhi Leonard,” Daniel Imatorbhebhe, a teammate and tight end, once told me of Darnold. How some things have changed. But Darnold hasn’t. His game has evolved; his personality, though, has remained largely unchanged. Just read what he said after Thursday night’s preseason game, when he showed flashes of his best self while also throwing a pick and failing to get ideal offensive line protection. He might as well have been wearing cardinal and gold.
“I feel like I’m going to continue to grow and get better every single day.”
Being a professional has put a monetary worth behind Darnold’s name ($30 million, to be exact), but he still doesn’t have a Twitter account and gives the same answers to questions. His social media changes since being drafted are more comedic than anything. Instead of posting just a picture of some of his oldest friends, he now tags a socks company that sponsors him. Instead of raving about his beloved San Clemente sandwich shop, Board & Brew, he now promotes extremely on-brand sponsorships like Kona Coffee and Red Robin.
GIFs or hype videos of him always looked uncomfortable at USC. That’s true with the Jets, too; the NFL posted a GIF of him mimicking a hurry-up motion Thursday. Multimedia expressions fit him as well as a male romper would. But it’s all part of the inevitable package that comes with playing the most important position for one of the most well-known franchises in the country’s biggest sport; a package that will only continue to get bigger, more lucrative, and more front-facing should he win at the NFL level.
It’s hard to imagine Darnold ever leaning into the spotlight, though. He doesn’t have the same slightly awkward, yet funny self-deprecating attitude of the Mannings, both of whom have been on Saturday Night Live. He doesn’t have the cool factor of Tom Brady, or the dry humor of Aaron Rodgers. He’s more lovable dweeb than polished podium leader or intimidating killer. But in a league where outsize personalities are often stifled, and where quarterbacks are immediately put on pedestals no matter their age, that may be exactly what the Jets need—New York media be damned.
With Darnold, what you see is more or less what you get … until he steps onto the field. There, he will disappoint you, please you, and surprise you all in one drive. There, it all becomes a gamble and a mystery, and the chasm in between those two polar opposites—the wild ride that is his playing style and the divergent stroll that is his personality by comparison—is vast. It’s all part of a process that leads to plays like this:
Listen to the reactions. Kirk Herbstreit is in awe, Chris Fowler is nearly speechless. Me? I’m still wondering why he passed it to Deontay Burnett in triple coverage and not to the team’s no. 1 wide open receiver in the flat:
Can’t quite get over this: JuJu Smith-Schuster was this wide open when Darnold decided to throw TD to Burnett, who was behind defender here pic.twitter.com/1Fv4MdIwHr— Paolo Uggetti (@PaoloUggetti) January 5, 2017
“He made a play and I saw him.”
Sounds about right.