On the very first pass of his career, the New York Jets quarterback rolled out to his right, only to throw a prayer back across his body into the hands of Detroit Lions safety Quandre Diggs, who took it to the house. Darnold joined Brett Favre and Jameis Winston as the only rookie quarterbacks to throw pick-sixes on their first career attempts, QBs who in any other conversation would be fine company.
It was a typical "Welcome to the NFL, rookie" moment, where the nervy young gun quickly learns the perils of testing professional secondaries. A pick-six like that would have ruined other first-year quarterbacks' evenings. But Darnold was different on Monday night.
"On that interception, I was pretty nervous. Not going to lie to you guys," Darnold told reporters after the Jets' 48-17 victory. "But after that, I put it behind me. I think after the crowd got really loud after that pick, it was just, 'Shoot.' And then I was like, 'OK, here we go. Can't get much worse than that.'"
In fact, it got much better.
Darnold responded with a stellar, composed evening during which the rookie displayed excellent out-of-pocket accuracy and quick decision-making. The quarterback showed touch and field vision on a 41-yard dime to deep threat Robby Anderson for his first career TD pass. Then, after Detroit marched down the field for an easy second-half-opening touchdown drive, Darnold led New York right back down the field in just six plays, hooking up with Terrelle Pryor on two crosses and Quincy Enunwa for a catch-and-score. The Jets didn't look back after that, rolling to an easy win on the shoulders of a resilient rookie quarterback and an opportunistic defense.
After the pick-six, Darnold completed 80 percent of his passes for 198 yards and those two scores; he also picked up a first down on a six-yard scamper. Enunwa, a slot target who missed all of last season with a neck injury, was Darnold's top target on the night, racking up six catches for 63 yards on 10 targets.
It was clear after the game that Darnold's play under such adversity inspired a sizable portion of the locker room and earned the respect of the team's vested leaders.
"He came out first play and made a mistake. He came out the next series and acted like it never happened," Jets second-year safety Jamal Adams gushed to NFL Network's Kimberly Jones after the game. "He brushed it behind him and attacked the day. That man is so poised and we're just so proud to have him as a quarterback and play together."
"He didn't flinch," Jets coach Todd Bowles said stone-faced while talking about Darnold to reporters. "He didn't even blink."
Next up for Darnold: a home opener against the division-rival Miami Dolphins in front of what is sure to be an raucous, excited Meadowlands crowd. The hype for Sam the Savior is only going to grow after Darnold's resilient rookie debut. If he can follow up this milestone next week how he responded to Monday night's adversity, the Jets will be flying high and taking the rest of the league along for the ride.