To be a New York Jets fan is to always expect the worst to happen, so you are not surprised when it does. This is a mindset entrenched over five decades by the realization that bad things inevitably happen to one of the NFL’s most success-starved franchises.
As the Jets prepared for Monday night’s opener at Detroit, this was their reality: They had not played in a Super Bowl since Joe Namath famously upset the Baltimore Colts in 1969. They had missed the playoffs eight straight seasons after back-to-back losses in AFC championship games in 2009 and 2010. They were also 81 games under .500 (410-491-8) in franchise history, dating to 1960 when they were called the Titans, played in the Polo Grounds and were coached by Sammy Baugh.
But last April, a glimmer of light shone through the gloom when good fortune allowed the Jets to draft USC quarterback Sam Darnold with the third overall pick.
And then Darnold won the starting job in training camp and broke the huddle with the Jets facing a first-and-10 at their 25-yard line just 20 seconds into the game.
Darnold took the snap and rolled to his right. He looked to his left and floated a dirigible toward the sideline which looked bad from the start. Lions cornerback Quandre Diggs intercepted it and returned it 37 yards for a touchdown.
Darnold, 21, the youngest quarterback to start a season opener since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, proved he was already playing Jets football.
“Right when I released it, I saw the defender,” Darnold told The New York Times. “I just thought, ‘Oh shoot.’”
But something amazing happened after that play.
”On that interception, I was pretty nervous,” Darnold said. ”After that, I put it behind me.”
Playing in concert with a defense that had five interceptions, Darnold completed 16-of-21 for 198 yards and two touchdowns as the Jets demolished the Lions 48-17 – or 48-10 over the final 59 minutes, 40 seconds. The Jets had not won a road opener since 2009.
Darnold became the first quarterback to win his first start by 31 or more points since Tom Brady in 2001.
You can imagine how exciting that news is to Jets fans, since it is Brady’s dominance, particularly in the AFC East, that Darnold is expected to replicate long after the Patriots Hall of Fame quarterback retires to the French Riviera.
”He didn’t flinch,” Jets coach Todd Bowles said. ”He didn’t even blink.”
Darnold’s day was just a part of an encouraging show by the Jets. With the help of their defense, they set a franchise record for points on the road, a mark (47) that had stood since 1967.
The Jets scored just about every way possible, including a 31-point run in the third quarter that put the game on ice. The Jets scored on offense, defense and specials teams. The Jets hadn’t scored a defensive touchdown in 73 games, an NFL record. No Jets team had ever scored that many points in the third quarter.
But back to Darnold. During the game he was never too far away from first-year offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates and veteran Josh McCown, last year’s starter who has enthusiastically accepted a new role as mentor.
“The mindset that we were going to go in (with): Take a shot to start the game,” McCown said told the New York Daily News. “We could have tiptoed into that thing and played it really safe. But you take a rookie quarterback on the road in a loud environment and say that’s going to be our first play in the game. And we have confidence in Sam to do that. (Bates) trusted him. I think that’s the thing that’s going to carry us: That belief in each other. And it carried us the rest of the game. I’m proud of JB’s courage to A) call the play to start the game off like that and B) to bounce back.”
Even that inauspicious start managed to connect Darnold to one of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time, Brett Favre, himself a former Jet. Farve and Tampa’s Jameis Winston had been the only two NFL quarterbacks to have their first pass intercepted and returned for a touchdown. If Darnold turns out to be half the quarterback Favre was, happy days will be here again for Jets fans.