Sam Darnold evolving as Jets leader mired by on-field questions

Sam Darnold enters his third season with more questions than the SATs.

We still don’t know whether he is the long-term solution for the Jets at quarterback. We still don’t know if he can elevate those around him like the best quarterbacks do. We still don’t know if he can stay healthy for 16 games and become the quarterback the Jets envisioned when they took him No. 3 overall in 2018.

All of those answers will become clearer in the next four months as the Jets face a tough schedule.

One thing that is already clear, though, is Darnold has taken a step forward as a team leader. The 23-year-old sounds more assertive, and there were several signs in the past few months that he feels more comfortable in a role that was difficult for him to slide into as a 21-year-old rookie or even last year, when he was more focused on learning a new offense.

Believe it or not, Darnold is now the longest-tenured player on the Jets’ offense, along with Chris Herndon. Everyone else who was on the offense in 2018 when Darnold arrived is gone. That has helped Darnold find his voice, after deferring to older players in the past two years. Those guys who once viewed Darnold as a kid are gone, and anyone arriving now knows Darnold is The Man.

A few instances have stood out recently that showed a different Darnold. From taking the lead in organizing a camp for the skill players in Florida in June to addressing the entire team one night early in training camp, Darnold has looked like a leader. When the Jets practiced at MetLife Stadium last week, Darnold broke down the team huddle, something I can’t remember seeing him do before. He has also been vocal in helping guys learn the offense.

Sam Darnold
Sam DarnoldCorey Sipkin

Then, when the Jets decided to skip practice two weeks ago to have discussions about race and taking action in the wake of the shooting of Jacob Blake, Darnold was one of the players to address the media. It was telling that the players felt comfortable with a white male from Southern California being one of their spokesmen.

“I think as a leader, he’s one of the best,” new center Connor McGovern said. “I can’t speak for how he was in previous years but, to me, he’s extremely confident. From what I feel like, he feels like a veteran. I don’t know if that’s any different than it was. He plays with confidence, he knows what to do, and he’s not out there second-guessing himself. If I didn’t know he was 23 years old, I’d have no idea. He’s playing like a true vet right now.”

Darnold has always carried himself with maturity and seemed older than his birth certificate says he is. He surely will be named one of the team captains on Wednesday for the second straight season. He has leadership qualities reminiscent of Derek Jeter and David Wright, two of the best captains in recent memory in this town. They all have a confidence that does not cross the line to cockiness. It engenders respect from teammates instead of the resentment that comes for players who try too hard to be leaders. For someone like Darnold, it seems to be natural.

“You know just seeing him grow,” general manager Joe Douglas said of what he saw from Darnold this summer, “just watching him grow within the offense, and then also watch him grow and mature as a person and a leader and not being afraid to have tough conversations, and that’s just part of a 23-year-old quarterback becoming a franchise quarterback and maturing into that role and taking on more and more responsibility.”

Darnold has answered the leadership question this summer. Now, he has to answer the on-field questions that surround him.