EAST RUTHERFORD — Sam Darnold said he wouldn’t let nerves or emotions affect his professional debut Friday night.
He was right.
Darnold, the Jets’ much-hyped rookie quarterback, looked comfortable and confident as he made his NFL preseason debut in a 17-0 win over the Atlanta Falcons at MetLife Stadium.
He showed off a strong arm, moved fluently in the pocket under pressure, and led his first career touchdown drive on his second NFL series. He finished the game 13 of 18 for 96 yards and a touchdown.
Most importantly, he looked like a guy who is capable of winning the starting job over veterans Josh McCown and Teddy Bridgewater — although there is a long way to go.
“I’m not going to jump to any conclusions,” Jets coach Todd Bowles said. “It’s a tough decision. We’ve got three good players and we’re happy to have them.”
Darnold, the third overall pick in April’s draft, entered the game with 8:41 remaining in the second quarter. His first play was a handoff to running back Trenton Cannon. Fans cheered. His first completion was a simple pass to Cannon in the left flat. Fans roared for that, too.
Then things got interesting.
He felt the pressure on third-and-7, but stood in the pocket and delivered a strike to Neal Sterling for a first down. Then he was flushed out of the pocket on first-and-1, finding running room in the middle of the field before picking up five yards and sliding to safety.
The first drive ended after six plays and picked up only 14 yards. But Darnold looked comfortable, and that was encouraging.
Darnold’s second drive was something else entirely: thoroughly impressive.
Starting at the Jets’ 36, Darnold methodically worked the offense down the field into Atlanta territory. On first-and-15 from the Falcons’ 33, Darnold got some time from his blockers and he used it to find tight end Clive Walford wide open on the far side of the field for an 18-yard gain. It was a head-turning play because Darnold had the vision to find Walford and the arm strength to throw across the field for that kind of gain.
His touchdown pass was just as impressive. After having two touchdowns wiped out — when receiver Charles Johnson dropped a pass and was called for pushing off on a would-be touchdown catch — Darnold evaded pressure in the pocket, scrambled to his right and while running found Johnson again. This time, the 14-yard touchdown pass counted.
Again, Darnold displayed the traits that have fans and the Jets so excited: patience, vision, awareness, mobility and the ability to throw on the run. Darnold looked to the left, didn’t like what he saw, stepped up in the pocket, ran to the right and once Johnson was open he delivered a perfect ball on the run.
“The first touchdown drive of my whole career was a two-minute drive going down the field,” Darnold said. “It was awesome.”
He finished the first half 9 of 11 for 74 yards. Sure he’s did it against Atlanta’s backups, but Darnold was also playing with the Jets’ backups. And in the second half, Darnold faltered a bit. The only drive of the third quarter started on the Jets’ 5-yard line and never got past the 25. He went three-and-out on each of his first two drives in the fourth quarter. But it wasn’t exactly if the Jets were opening up the playbook. The goal, obviously, was to get Darnold out of there without injury.
He took a spike to his left hand on that slide in the second quarter, and played the second half with a glove but looked none worse for the wear. In the fourth quarter he took his first career sack and popped up without issue.
There were no major mistakes on this night. And Darnold did nothing to take himself out of the three-way quarterback competition with Josh McCown and Teddy Bridgewater.
Soon, one would imagine, Darnold will get to work with the Jets starters. But for now, he looked good in his first opportunity. And that’s all the Jets, or their fans, could have asked for.