Behind an amicable demeanor, a fire rages inside the heart of a Trojan warrior. Entering his third professional season, Jets QB Sam Darnold is a professional upperclassman who is well-versed in an offense that he experienced different levels of success in during his first season under Adam Gase.
"Before he was asking a lot of questions, and now he's more telling us how he should have done something, which is great," said Gase, who is heading into his second season leading the Jets and is the offense's play-caller, of Darnold. "When you're a coach and you start hearing a player talk like that, you get really fired up and you can see it's coming. He's really understanding this and he's understanding the why behind things. You can tell there's an irritation, too, when he sees mistakes made from last year, especially at the beginning of the year. That's not going to happen again and the longer we go in this thing, the better he's going to get."
If Darnold continues to improve, the Jets could move from a 7-9 team finding its way to a club that is in the playoff conversation come December. He was better in a myriad of passing categories in 2019 and finished 7-6 as a starter despite a lack of cohesion in front of him. The 11 different starters and 9 combinations along the offense line would have made it difficult for any quarterback, but Darnold still upped his completion percentage (59.9 to 61.9), touchdowns (17 to 19) and yards per game (220.4 to 232.6) totals and lowered his interceptions (15 to 13) despite getting sacked more (30 to 33) and hit more frequently. Knocked around throughout the year, Darnold endured bruised ribs and knee soreness and underwent successful surgery on his left thumb this offseason.
See the Best Images of the Jets Quarterback
In unprecedented times, the question of what lies next for Darnold is at the forefront of the Jets' conversation. GM Joe Douglas improved the offensive line, but the Jets will hit training camp with a running clock with as many as four new starters along the OL including potentially a new center for Darnold in Connor McGovern. While Darnold developed great chemistry with slot receiver Jamison Crowder in 2019 (career-high 78 receptions for a team-leading 833 yards), he will have two new starters on the outside and those vacancies could be filled by a veteran newcomer in Breshard Perriman and a talented rookie in Denzel Mims. It will also be fascinating to see if Darnold and talented tight end Chris Herndon can build on the rapport they shared as rookies because the latter will return following a lost season. The talent is better, but there will be plenty of fresh faces surrounding the red-headed rifleman.
"I think for me it's continuing to play good football and just be the same person I am off the field," said Darnold, whom Gase wants to become an extension of the coaching staff. "Nothing is going to drastically change. I'm sure being in the second year of the system, I might help out some guys more often than I would have last year because I was still getting comfortable as best I could. Right now, I think it's about continuing to do what I've been doing."
Darnold is trending in the right direction and the 23-year-old is six months younger than Joe Burrow, the LSU star selected by the Cincinnati Bengals with the No. 1 overall selection in April's draft. But bumps are expected as the Green & White work in so many news parts on the offensive side in the hope that the pieces can help Darnold ignite an attack that ranked 31st in scoring (17.3 PPG) and 29th in passing (194.4 YPG).
After New York's AFC representative went 0-6 in games Darnold did not play in 2018-19, Douglas got an insurance policy behind his young gun. Joe Flacco, a former Super Bowl MVP with 98 regular-season wins on his resume who at Delaware was scouted by the Jets GM, will provide Darnold with an extra set of experienced eyes.
"He's seen so many different things," said offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains of Flacco. "He's experienced so many different things in different systems, different offenses, different language. He'll bring a different perspective. Maybe able to even branch and be able to talk to Sam about, hey, this is my experience with this play, this is my experience with this protection, and be another voice in the room."
To date, Darnold has displayed the mettle and the steady hands needed to thrive in New York. And he has all the necessary physical traits to play the game at an elite level including quality feet, the athleticism to make plays on the move and the ability to accurately place the football wherever it needs to be delivered.
"I'll say this about Sam, as a thrower I don't know if you can find somebody that spins the ball more than he does," said Bills QB Josh Allen, one of Darnold's offseason training teammates in California under the watchful eye of Jordan Palmer, on Sirius XM's NFL Radio. "He spins it so well that the ball is really shaking. And it's just weird to watch from behind because the ball is just moving in the air because it spins so much. ... He's naturally gifted when it comes to that. He's smart, he gets football and he gets my movie quotes that I always throw out."