“For me, I’m just going to stay in my apartment and really just travel from there to here inside the building,” said Darnold, who lives less than a mile from the Jets’ training facility in Florham Park, New Jersey. “That’s going to be it for me. It might be boring, but that’s kind of what I have to do at this point.”
For Darnold, a 23-year-old bachelor, it will be ready, set … home.
If a friend invites him out to nearby New York City, he will decline. Perhaps more than any player in the league, he understands how illness can derail a season. A year ago, he became the first NFL quarterback in recent memory to be diagnosed with mononucleosis, causing him to miss three games. By the time he returned, the team was 0-4 and the Jets’ season was pretty much shot.
This is a critical year for Darnold, who, despite two mediocre statistical seasons, still is viewed by the Jets as their Golden Child. They just endured a turbulent divorce with star safety Jamal Adams, and they need someone to galvanize the team, create an identity for the franchise and take the heat off coach Adam Gase. Darnold can do all that by reaching the lofty expectations that arrived with him in 2018.
A few days after drafting Darnold No. 3 overall, Jets CEO Christopher Johnson said, “I honestly think they’re going to look back 20 years from now and say that this is the moment that the Jets shifted into a new gear, that they became a great team.”
Great? No. Since then, the Jets have lost 21 of 32 games and have changed coaches and general managers. Of course, nothing in the NFL can alter the narrative faster than an exciting quarterback prodigy, and the Jets believe Darnold is that guy.
“He has a little bit different way about him,” Gase said Tuesday, relaying that Darnold’s confidence has grown by leaps and bounds.
For now, Darnold is taking baby steps. He arrived last Friday, passed his COVID-19 tests and gained admittance to the facility on Tuesday, reporting day for the entire team. Mindful of the circumstances, he doesn’t shake hands with anyone, opting for an elbow dab. When a teammate texts him, “I’ll respond, ‘Hey, have you gotten your test yet, because I’m not going to see you if you haven’t gotten your test.'”
Even though the Jets added an experienced backup in Joe Flacco, they can’t afford to lose Darnold. His development will be the No. 1 storyline in 2020. The internal hope is he can build on his encouraging finish. From Weeks 10 to 17, he posted the 10th-highest passer rating (93.3), ahead of players such as Seattle’s Russell Wilson, Atlanta’s Matt Ryan and Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers.
Darnold, 23, bounced back from horrific games against the New England Patriots (“Seeing ghosts“) and Jacksonville Jaguars, indicating the kid has mental toughness. But there needs to be more than that. For him, it’s about consistency, performing at a high level week after week.
“There’s so much more than I understand that I didn’t understand last year,” Darnold said. “For me, it’s getting a whole year under my belt in the system. I definitely have a lot more confidence. … I have a ton more confidence in myself to go out and play consistent football.”
The Jets don’t like to admit it, but Darnold struggled with Gase’s system early last season. (Running back Le’Veon Bell called it the most complex offense he’s had to learn.) After the brutal showing in Jacksonville, Darnold had a heart-to-heart with the coach and they scaled back the offense to suit his strengths. They won six of the Jets’ last eight games, largely due to the defense, but the late rally injected optimism into the organization.
Darnold could have benefited from offseason practices, especially with so much personnel turnover on offense, so it remains to be seen how that void will affect his progress. Offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said Darnold used the extra (virtual) meeting time to his advantage, saying they broke down cut-ups from every play last season. That’s encouraging, but as Bill Parcells used to say, “Don’t tell me about the labor, show me the baby.”
This is a show-me year for Darnold. It starts with staying healthy.
“We’re just going to have to trust the fact that everyone is staying safe,” he said. “We’ll be getting tested every day. We’ve got to trust each other that no one is going out, seeing people they shouldn’t see, people that haven’t been tested. … It’s going to be the way of the world. There’s a new norm now.”