NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — Sam Darnold despised the thought of not playing. He was frustrated his injured right foot wouldn’t let him.
So, for three games, the New York Jets rookie quarterback tried to be productive during his time away from the huddle. Darnold focused on Josh McCown and how the 39-year-old prepared every day.
He listened. And, learned.
Darnold is now playing the best football of his young NFL — and he knows the reason.
“I really do think it was just, you know, watching Josh and just the way that he went about studying the plays that are in the game plan,” Darnold said during a conference call Monday. “It was literally everything — walkthrough, practice — how he treated everything. I think it was just awesome to be able to learn and watch him. And I think that’s the reason for, you know, me playing a little bit better these last couple games.”
Darnold strained his foot at Miami on Nov. 4, a game in which he threw four interceptions. In the three outings before he was sidelined, the 21-year-old quarterback completed just 47 percent of his passes — 52 of 110 — for 558 yards and two touchdowns with a whopping seven INTs.
Some fans and media speculated whether Darnold, the starter out of training camp, could use a break from playing so he could reset himself and perhaps benefit from taking a step back.
The injury settled the debate.
“Obviously, you don’t want to get hurt and it (stinks) when I’m not able to play,” Darnold said, “but I think the break and being able to just relax and have some time off was actually really good for my mind as well.”
Darnold spent over a month on the sideline before he was fully healthy again and able to shake off the rust. He has been a different quarterback since.
In games at Buffalo and at home against Houston, Darnold was 40 of 62 — 65 percent — for 423 yards and three touchdowns with just one interception. He has shown a knack for prolonging plays and extending drives with his legs.
Coaches and teammates praised Darnold’s business-like approach even before he was sidelined and his insistence on not repeating his mistakes. The Jets believe he has now taken the next step in his development.
“You see a lot of growth,” center Jonotthan Harrison said. “You see him getting more and more comfortable each day, each practice, each game in the NFL as a whole and running an NFL offense. It’s very comforting to see the growth and he’s just exuding that much more confidence in the huddle.”
Darnold is by no means a finished product, and he’s the first to point that out. Even in his terrific performance against the Texans during which he gave the Jets a fourth-quarter lead, he spotted flaws on the film.
“On a couple plays, I feel like I was indecisive,” he said. “I think I’ve been seeing that all year. Just (have to) continue to make clean decisions and when a guy is open just to get it to him. Also on the quicker throws, be ready to throw them. I feel like sometimes my feet, I was ready to throw a deeper route, whereas maybe I could’ve been ready to throw a little bit earlier.
“So, just continuing to clean up my feet and continuing to clean up my rhythm in terms of when I need to throw the ball and get it out of my hands.”
All that said, even Jets opponents are getting the sense that the kid could be special.
Texans star defensive lineman J.J. Watt sought out Darnold after the game and shared a few quick compliments.
“You’re going to be a great pro,” Watt told Darnold, hugging the young QB and patting him on the back.
“It means a lot coming from a guy like that,” Darnold said. “At the same time, I’ve got to continue to work hard and continue to sharpen all the tools in my toolbox so that every single time I play a good player like him I can continue to play well and do my thing.”
Darnold is a film junkie, who often flips on tape of an opposing defense or an established quarterback from whom he’ll try to glean something.
One of those is Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, whom Darnold and the Jets will face at home Sunday.
“During the offseason, I look at Aaron all the time, first of all just to watch some of the cool throws that he’s able to make,” Darnold said. “He really is the most talented person I’ve ever seen the way he’s able to get rid of the ball and throw the football. Just from that aspect, it’s fun as a quarterback knowing how hard the position is, knowing how hard it is to play, it’s really cool to be able to watch someone really make it look so easy.”
Darnold’s goal is to someday do the same.
Until then, he’ll keep watching and learning.
“I feel like I’m seeing the field really well and continuing to improve every single week,” Darnold said. “So these last couple of weeks, I’m just hoping to build on that.”
(© Copyright 2018 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)