By Steve Silverman
It has never been all about Sam Darnold. The rookie quarterback carries a heavy burden because he is the No. 3 pick and he did well enough this summer to win the starting quarterback position.
But make no mistake about it, he is not an elite quarterback and there are no guarantees he will ever get close. He has the arm strength, accuracy, athletic ability, intelligence and a willingness to learn, but it takes two or three years, at best, for any quarterback to be at his best.
The best example for playing at a peak level is not Tom Brady or Peyton Manning. It is Dan Marino, who was sensational as a second-year player in 1984 when he threw 48 touchdown passes and led the Miami Dolphins to the only Super Bowl of his tenure. All Marino had going for him was as strong an arm and as quick a release as the game has ever seen.
So the Jets knew that their rookie quarterback was not responsible for their fortunes. When they prepared for their season-opening game at Ford Field against the Detroit Lions, there were 21 other players who were involved and ready to start the season.
Eleven of those players were on defense, and they were prepared magnificently against an opponent that should have been ready to tear their heads off.
The Lions were a winning team last year when they fired head coach Jim Caldwell and replaced him with former Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. The same Matty P who had been the architect of the New England defense that had tormented the Jets and the rest of the AFC East for so many years.
The bearded coach with the backward baseball hat had waited and waited for the right head-coaching opportunity, and he took his chance with the Lions. If a team should have been prepared for a brilliant off-Broadway opening, it should have been the Lions.
Instead, it was the Jets. New York played as strong a game as it has played in years, and it was not all about Darnold. He played a role, and he performed well, especially after throwing a pick-six on the first play of the game, but it was the defense that performed magnificently.
The preparation was thorough and complete, and the Jets simply knew every move that Matthew Stafford was going to make as the game moved along.
The Jets defense stopped the Lions cold, and they choked off Stafford’s ability to get the ball to his receivers tallying five interceptions, two of them from linebacker Darron Lee and single picks from Morris Claiborne, Jamal Adams and Trumaine Johnson.
Lee said that he and his teammates had been studying the Lions and their formations for months, and they knew where Stafford was going with the ball throughout the majority of the game. That was especially true on Lee’s pick-six.
“I’ve been watching that formation since like July,” Lee said. “Jamal [Adams] called it out, I called it out. I’m like, ‘Just sit there and wait on the inside route.’ It was either gonna be a snag route or a ram route, and he ran a ram route. It was right there.”
Lee was the star of the show with seven tackles and three passes defensed in addition to his two interceptions. He also returned one of those interceptions for a 36-yard score, giving the Jets their first defensive touchdown since the 2013 season. Adams had six tackles, and three passes defensed along with his pick.
The Jets were a magnificent team, at least for one night against an opponent that didn’t know what was coming. The defense made Stafford look like a low-end amateur, and in addition to stealing his passes, they battered him throughout the game. The Jets were not credited with a sack, but they were able to pressure Stafford, hit him as he released the ball and force him into poor throws.
What does this mean for the future? One game is an excellent start, but it is not part of a trend or winning pattern.
However, that could start this week when the Jets host the Dolphins. Miami outlasted Tennessee in its opener, but few expect Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill to lead a playoff team this year.
The Jets need to show that they can play defense consistently, and that is something that can be mastered throughout a 16-game season.
A rookie quarterback will have ups and downs, but any issues can be masked by a defense that prepares well and executes even better.
The first test has been passed with flying colors. There will be many more before we know the Jets’ true identity.