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Kolakowski: Sam the savior? Cool your Jets

| Friday, September 14, 2018

Sam Darnold might be the emerging Broadway star of New York Jets football, but, when it comes to their newly crowned franchise quarterback, fans should exercise an abundance of caution.

On Monday evening, fans of the New York Jets were awestruck when their usual laughingstock of a franchise put a 48-17 drubbing on Matthew Stafford and the Detroit Lions.

In the third quarter of the Monday Night Football matchup, the Jets posted 31 points in seemingly every way imaginable. Linebacker Darron Lee returned an interception 36 yards to the end zone. Andre Roberts tightroped down the sideline on a 78-yard punt-return touchdown. Isaiah Crowell dashed 62 yards out of the Jets backfield for a long rushing score. Big play after big play put an exclamation point on the Jets win.

But the explosive play that ignited the Jets offense in the second half? That was certainly Sam Darnold’s 21-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Quincy Enunwa, giving New York a 24-17 lead.

Darnold, the third-overall pick in April’s NFL draft, wasn’t expected to start the first game of the year. He was added to a depth chart that included journeyman Josh McCown and former Vikings’ quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. By the time the season kicked off, though, Bridgewater had been traded to New Orleans and McCown was relegated to mentor and backup duty.

Darnold was thrust into the spotlight, but he was promptly embarrassed when his first pass of the evening was intercepted and returned for a touchdown.

The reaction online was immediate. Bleacher Report ribbed the Jets on Twitter, posting a photo of the recently traded Bridgewater along with the caption, “Y’all need me to come … OH WAIT YOU TRADED ME.”

Darnold bounced back after his initial turnover and led New York to the win in Week 1. Along the way, the quarterback completed 16 of his 21 pass attempts for 198 yards and two touchdowns. Although modest, that stat line was certainly impressive for a rookie debut.

By the end of the night, fans were enamored with their 21-year-old superstar.

Nearly a year ago, I wrote that New York football fans should shield their eyes from the horrendous product on the field in MetLife stadium. After a year of struggles, this must be it. This must be what Jets fans were waiting for. Sam Darnold is the savior, the franchise, a real quarterback to take the reins of the offense.

Even the Jets’ players and coaching staff were excited to see Darnold’s performance in Week 1, said ESPN’s Rich Cimini.

Today, though, it is necessary that fans remind themselves of one thing. This franchise is still the New York Jets.

The Jets, who have not been to the playoffs since their AFC Championship Game appearance in 2010.

The Jets, who have had to look up in the standings at the New England Patriots every season since 2002.

The Jets, who have already seen performances like this from high-profile rookie quarterbacks.

In 2013, Geno Smith led the Jets to an 18-17 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers while tossing for 256 yards. Smith struggled in two years as the Jets starter before being benched in 2015 and then leaving the team after 2016.

In 2009, Mark Sanchez racked up 272 yards through the air in a 24-7 win over Houston. The Jets reached two AFC Championship Games with Sanchez at quarterback, but he was nothing more than a game manager before flaming out.

We have watched this movie before. It is unreasonable to expect Sam Darnold to join the Jets and suddenly become the savior. The rookie quarterback is hardly perfect, and he illustrated that with a pick-6 on the first pass of his career.

Throughout his time at the University of Southern California, Darnold was terribly turnover-prone. In the 2017 season, he tossed 13 interceptions and lost nine of his 12 fumbles in 14 games.

Those 22 turnovers are a cause for concern in New York, a city where the pressure of the media and the fan base can crush an athlete. The back pages of the New York tabloids sang Darnold’s praises Tuesday morning, but they can tear him down at the first sign of weakness. If Darnold allows those turnover woes to follow him to MetLife Stadium, a chorus of boos could be raining down on him very soon.

Darnold is barely 21 years old, making him the youngest quarterback to start a season opener since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. He played in only 27 games over two seasons at USC. That youth is an exciting shot of adrenaline for the Jets, but that inexperience indicates he still has a lot of growing up to do.

Jets coach Todd Bowles tried to extinguish the excitement around his rookie at his Thursday-morning press conference.

“It’s only been one game,” Bowles said. “To sit here and say whether he’s great or whether he’s trash or whether he’s anything else, it’s way too early for that.”

Fans should follow Bowles’ lead in remaining level-headed after Darnold’s initial success.

This is not to say that this Jets team doesn’t have the potential to be successful. They own a tenacious defense led by lineman Leonard Williams and outspoken safety Jamal Adams. Quincy Enunwa, Robby Anderson and Isaiah Crowell provide sneaky depth and speed at offensive skill positions.

Fans are excited, and with good reason. They have suffered through enough, so it is fair to rejoice in this victory and be happy with the progress.

However, this is to say that expectations should be tempered. As Adams tweeted after the win against the Lions, “Not too high not too low. But a great 1-0 start as a team.”

Fans should take Adams’ advice as the Jets prepare to make their home opener against the Miami Dolphins this Sunday.

Keep your eye on Darnold, though. Maybe, just maybe, he will be the next big thing to hit Broadway.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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