By Kendall Williams
Phenix City, AL
East Rutherford, N.J.–Break! The Jets, leading the Falcons 10-0 in the second quarter, scrambled out of their huddle like hungry wolves. Though only the preseason, the moment felt anything but meaningless: Rookie quarterback Sam Darnold was in the first goal-line situation of his NFL career.
Anxiety infused the thousands of Jets fans gathered in the stadium as New York took to the line, just over a minute remaining in the first half. Darnold had completed six consecutive passes in less than two minutes to move the Jets from their own 36-yard line to the doorstep of Atlanta’s endzone. On first and goal from Atlanta’s three-yard line, the Jets lined up with an empty backfield. The ball was snapped, and Darnold hooked a pass to Charles Johnson on the right, but failed to find his receiver. On second and goal, Darnold handed off to Trenton Cannon, but the Falcons gobbled him up in the backfield.
On third and goal, Darnold found Charles Johnson in the endzone, but referees ruled Johnson had pushed off his defender, negating New York’s touchdown. Backed up to the 14-yard line, New York lined up in shotgun formation with Cannon in the backfield and Johnson still on the right wing. The ball was snapped and Darnold, shuffling his feet and glancing left then right, found Johnson again in the right corner of the endzone: the first-round pick’s first touchdown pass of the preseason.
This isn’t Darnold’s first rodeo dealing with the pressure and responsibilities of the quarterback position. During two years as a starter for USC, Darnold won 20 games and lost just four, throwing for 7,229 yards and 57 touchdowns against 22 interceptions.
Darnold, who finished Friday’s game 13 of 18 for 96 yards and a touchdown, is competing with veterans Josh McCown and Teddy Bridgewater to win New York’s starting quarterback job. But if he continues playing like he did against the Falcons, he could start for the Jets in their Week 1 game against the Lions.
Though the Jets won the game 17-0, Atlanta is expected to be a better team this season, mostly because of the team’s star quarterback, Matt Ryan, who only played one series on Friday. Ryan’s first NFL season was jaw-dropping, as he went on to win Offensive Rookie of the Year after throwing for 3,340 yards and 16 touchdowns.
Will Sam Darnold be the 2018 version of 2008’s Matt Ryan? No one knows the answer to that question just yet, but Darnold is making a convincing case for himself as New York’s starting quarterback.