"That was fun," the 21-year-old quarterback said to his dad as he went in for a hug.
Heck, yeah, it was fun.
Darnold had just won his first professional start, overcoming a pick-six on his first pass attempt to beat the Detroit Lions, 48-17. No one wants to start his career with a blooper moment, but it showed he can take a punch. That will serve him well as he navigates an early schedule that will test his mettle.
Working on a short week, Darnold will face the Miami Dolphins in the Jets' home opener. Then it'll be an even shorter week -- a dreaded Thursday night road game against the Cleveland Browns, who may start blitzing the rookie before the national anthem is finished. From there, it's a road trip to the Jacksonville Jaguars, best defensive team in the NFL.
The point is, not every week will be fun for Darnold. Not every opponent will be as clueless as the Lions, who looked utterly unprepared under first-year coach Matt Patricia. Every young quarterback falls into a funk at some point. The mentally fragile get swallowed up by the adversity and the pressure. The tough-minded players fight their way out of it.
On Monday night, Darnold showed fight. After the interception, he went 16-for-20, 198 yards and two touchdowns, rallying the Jets to one of their most impressive season-opening wins. Instead of imploding on prime-time TV, he laughed off his rookie blunder.
"What's great about Sam is that he bounces back," tackle Kelvin Beachum said. "To have that ability at such a young age ... he was smiling after the play. When you see that, you know he's going to be OK."
Darnold's teammates have lauded his poise since the spring, but there's a difference between the comfy practice fields of Florham Park, New Jersey, and the ear-splitting din that was Ford Field. Even though they didn't say it publicly, his teammates wanted to see how he'd react in the crucible of a real game.
Offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates showed his trust in Darnold by calling a deep pass on the first play of the season. In fact, they talked about it for days. It was a loud statement, not only to his quarterback, but to the rest of the league: We're not going to baby our kid quarterback. Coach Todd Bowles had said they were coming to Detroit to win the game, not play it -- and that wasn't lip service.
"We could've tip-toed into the game and played it really safe," backup quarterback Josh McCown said. "But you take a rookie quarterback, on the road, in that environment and call that pass on the first play? It shows confidence and courage to dial up that play to start a game."
Darnold misfired -- he didn't see safety Quandre Diggs lurking deep -- but you know what? That vote of confidence from Bates may have helped him rebound from the disastrous outcome. After that, he was a cool customer, especially on third downs -- 4-for-4, including a touchdown.
Let's keep it in perspective, though. Darnold attempted only one tight-window throw, according to NFL Next Gen Stats -- his 41-yard scoring pass to Robby Anderson. The NFL defines a tight window as less than one yard of separation between the target and defender. In other words, it was easy pickings against the Lions' secondary. The average was 4.1 yards, per Next Gen Stats.
Not every game will be this much fun, but it was a learning experience wrapped inside a victory.