DETROIT — New York Jets rookie Sam Darnold made history Monday night, becoming the youngest quarterback in the modern era to start a season opener.
It took him one play to make more history — the wrong kind — before a tremendous turnaround.
On his first NFL pass, Darnold threw a pick-six, an ill-advised interception that was returned 37 yards for a touchdown by Detroit Lions safety Quandre Diggs. Darnold joined Jameis Winston (2015) and Brett Favre (1991) as the only quarterbacks in the past 27 years whose first career attempt was intercepted for a touchdown.
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Unfazed by his nightmarish start, Darnold — 21 years, 97 days old — grew up quickly on a national stage, leading the Jets to a 48-17 victory at Ford Field. They set a franchise record for most points scored in a road game. He became the first quarterback since Tom Brady in 2001 to win by at least 31 points in his first career start.
“He didn’t flinch. He didn’t even blink,” coach Todd Bowles said of Darnold’s early mistake. “I could sit here and tell you we planned it to get the jitters out, but we didn’t.”
Darnold completed 16 of 21 passes for 198 yards and two touchdowns, but the most telling number was this: He had only four incomplete passes after the pick-six, demonstrating the cool that led the Jets to draft him third overall.
Afterward, Darnold’s news conference began with a question about the interception.
“Thanks for bringing that up, really appreciate that,” he said, smiling.
Darnold admitted he was “pretty nervous” at the outset of the game, adding that he was “licking my chops a little bit too much” as the play unfolded.
“But after that, I put it behind me,” he said. “The crowd got really loud after that pick, and it was just, ‘Oh, shoot,’ and then I was like, ‘OK, here we go. Can’t get much worse than that.'”
The former USC star had plenty of help, as the Jets intercepted five passes and scored on offense, defense and special teams for the first time since the 2012 opener.
Oddly enough, backup quarterback Josh McCown said the early pick-six was the turning point.
“It galvanized our team,” he said.
In what was billed as the franchise’s most anticipated quarterback debut since Joe Namath in 1965, Darnold gave the Jets’ long-suffering fan base a queasy feeling. He committed a classic rookie mistake.
On a play-action, he rolled to this right and threw to the left, as the play was designed. He tried to hit running back Bilal Powell on a deep wheel route up the sideline. Diggs set the trap, and Darnold, thinking Powell was in the clear, took the cheese. It was a bold play call by offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates, but the coaches wanted to show confidence in Darnold and send a message to the Lions. It backfired in the worst possible way.
For months, the Jets praised Darnold’s poise and mental toughness, saying those traits would serve him well when adversity strikes. They just never imagined it would happen on the first play of his career.
To his credit, Darnold regained his composure and led the Jets to 17 unanswered points. He finished the first half by completing 11 of his next 14 passes. The Jets led at halftime 17-10, and they blew it open in the second half by scoring 21 points in a span of 2 minutes, 36 seconds in a 31-point third quarter.
They scored on an interception return by Darron Lee, their first defensive touchdown since 2013 (a 73-game drought), and a 78-yard punt return by Andre Roberts. The last time they scored on a punt or kickoff return was in 2012.
The Jets dismantled the Lions in every phase, but the night belonged to Darnold, who threw two long touchdowns — 41 yards to Robby Anderson and 21 yards to Quincy Enunwa. On Anderson’s play, Darnold used a shoulder fake to freeze the deep safety, giving his receiver a step.
Darnold was cool under pressure, completing several clutch passes on third down. His most important throw of the night came in the first quarter, when he was flushed from the pocket on third-and-7 and made an off-balance pass to Enunwa for 8 yards. On the next play, Isaiah Crowell scored on a 6-yard run. In the third quarter, Crowell scored again, a 62-yard run.