As Darnold era begins, it's on Jets to let Sam be Sam

DETROIT -- For a fleeting moment, New York Jets coach Todd Bowles sounded like one of his predecessors, sans the pulpit passion.

The subject was Sam Darnold, who will make history Monday night when he becomes the youngest quarterback in the modern era to start an opener. Bowles was asked if the Jets have to be conservative against the Detroit Lions, considering Darnold's inexperience and age. He's 21 years, 97 days old, which means he's barely old enough to buy a beer at Ford Field. Without hesitation, Bowles gave a steely reply.

"We're going up there trying to win a game, not play a game," he said.

You could almost hear the echo of Herm Edwards, 2002: "You play to win the game!"

Unlike Edwards, Bowles won't get a beer commercial out of it, but it's still a compelling point: Are the Jets really going to treat Darnold like a veteran, letting him run the full playbook, or will they fit him for a set of training wheels?

For weeks -- no, months -- Darnold's coaches and teammates have described him as a football savant, with a next-level mental approach and a no-panic personality. If that's how they feel, let him play. Turn him loose. Let Sam be Sam.

Despite five months of intense scrutiny, the kid has yet to experience a "rookie" moment. Heck, he didn't even flinch when ordered by the veterans to sing in front of the team. (By the way, he belted out "A Thousand Miles" by Vanessa Carlton.)

"I lean to playing the guy [right away] and not making him a game manager," said former NFL coach Bruce Arians, who has tutored the likes of Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Andrew Luck. "Let him go out and win the game. If he loses one, it’s a learning experience. But that team, when he makes that 'wow' play, the team will get excited."

This is an exciting moment for the Jets and their fans, who haven't felt this kind of anticipation since 2009. That year, Mark Sanchez -- straight out of USC, just like Darnold -- started as a rookie and was hailed as The Next Namath. Surrounded by a talented and experienced cast, Sanchez was instructed to stay out of the way and let his teammates win the game. It worked, as the Jets reached the AFC Championship Game despite an incredibly uneven season from Sanchez, who threw five interceptions in one game.

It will be interesting to see if Bowles leans toward the Sanchez approach or follows the wisdom of his mentor, Arians, the noted quarterback guru. Bowles can say he wants to win the game, but will he truly give Darnold the freedom to attack a Detroit defense that has only one impact player (cornerback Darius Slay) in the secondary?

This is uncharted territory for Bowles, who never has started a rookie at quarterback. (Darnold was the only rookie quarterback to start in Week 1.) In 2016, Bowles started second-year player Bryce Petty for a few meaningless games late in the season, keeping him on an ultra-tight leash.

But let's be clear: Darnold is a lot better than Petty, who was released in the spring.

"I'm starting him, [so] my confidence level has to be pretty high," Bowles said of Darnold, the third overall pick in the draft.

From an intangible standpoint, Darnold exudes cool and confidence without telling you he's cool and confident. He has a blue-collar mentality that is locked inside a surfer-dude persona, which is to say most everything in his world is "cool" and "awesome." (For the record, he's not an avid surfer even though he grew up in the coastal city of San Clemente, California.)

"He has a little bit of an old soul," wide receiver Robby Anderson said. "He's easygoing. It might be that Cali vibe in him, that easygoing vibe."

"He's unflappable," general manager Mike Maccagnan said.

"He's a natural-born leader," offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates said.

Darnold also happens to be an absolutely perfect fit in Bates' offense, which is essentially the old Mike Shanahan system. He will have Darnold on the move, rolling right and rolling left in a bootleg package that dovetails nicely with an outside-zone running scheme.

One of Darnold's most impressive traits, according to Lions first-year coach Matt Patricia, is his ability to throw accurately while moving to his weak (left) side. That puts an additional strain on the defense. Darnold's teammates recognized that immediately, dating to minicamp and OTAs in the spring. They were blown away by his pinpoint ball placement on the run.

"The staple in that offense is run the outside-zone play and bootleg off of it," said former NFL quarterback Brian Griese, who played in the Shanahan system and will call the game for ESPN. "I expect to see quite a bit of that, which is good for Sam, getting him outside the pocket. Some of his best plays in college were on the move. He's very accurate in that situation, so I expect of lot of that in this game."

Darnold hasn't brought everything from his college game to the NFL. On the positive side, he left behind the turnovers -- only one in the preseason, following a season in which he tied for the FBS lead with 22 (including 13 interceptions). He also led college football in pass attempts of at least 20 yards (101), but that aspect has yet to materialize.

In the preseason, Darnold attempted only one pass over 20 yards (incomplete), creating an air of mystery as he prepares for his pro debut. He showed a strong enough arm on the practice field, but the gun has yet to emerge from the holster. Opponents will figure that out quickly and will start sitting on the short routes. The Jets have to stretch the field to keep defenses honest. Darnold has a couple of deep threats in Anderson and Terrelle Pryor. Use them.

"I need to continue to prove it to myself, prove it to my teammates and prove it to the coaches that I can play this game at a high level," said Darnold, insisting he won't force passes downfield. "At the same time, I'm confident in myself that I can go out there every day and do that."

Darnold has special qualities, which made him the No. 1-ranked player on the Jets' draft board. Scouting him, they looked past the turnovers and saw an innate ability to improvise and to see things before they develop. His teammates have noticed it, too.

"He's able to throw us open," wide receiver Jermaine Kearse said. "That's something special in a quarterback."