FLORHAM PARK, N.J. – Sam Darnold sets the tone these days for the New York Jets.
And, not just with his arm.
It’s the second-year quarterback’s words and his approach with his teammates that are lifting him into a leadership role on and off the practice field.
“I definitely think you have to be able to understand what makes guys click, what sets a fire underneath a guy,” Darnold said Saturday. “Because if you can figure that out, especially as a quarterback, I feel like you can get everyone playing on the same page and everyone running routes, blocking, running at a very high level and at 100 percent every single play.”
The 22-year-old Darnold has already earned the respect of his teammates and coaches with his no-nonsense approach to football, immersing himself in the game as a student with a relentless desire to master everything about it. That includes knowing how to communicate with players – in good moments and bad – and recognizing how to properly motivate them.
“I’m not going to give hard examples, but some guys might be more quiet and you might have to talk to them one on one,” Darnold said. “Some guys might like to get, not necessarily ripped, but some guys might like to get talked to in front of the whole group and that fires them up a little bit, and then they want to go out there and prove it in front of their teammates.
“It’s just about knowing your teammates and understanding how you have to talk to them.”
That’s a perhaps overlooked but vital part of a young quarterback’s development.
Making plays and winning games goes a long way in helping a QB establish himself as a team leader. But the way he carries himself and commands the respect of those around him plays into it, too. And, that’s something Darnold appears to be getting the hang of quickly.
“Him being comfortable in those situations, that’s so valuable for us as an organization because that’s a step you have to take to become that leader that we’re looking for,” Gase said. “He just has natural leadership ability where he doesn’t even try and guys will respond to him.”
Darnold also accepts criticism – constructive and otherwise – from his coaches and teammates, and uses it to get better on the field.
“He’s really good,” Gase said. “He listens. It doesn’t matter how you say it. He listens, he takes in the information and then he goes and tries to apply it.”
During his rookie season, Darnold often praised veteran Josh McCown for helping him transition to the pros as a No. 3 overall pick with the hopes of a franchise resting on his shoulders. McCown, who retired during the offseason, was an immediate mentor and role model for the youngster, showing him how to carry himself on the field and in meetings.
McCown remains a constant sounding board for Darnold, and the two often use Snapchat to communicate about football and life off the field. McCown, now working as an analyst for ESPN, was at the Jets’ practice Saturday and mentioned to Gase how Darnold wouldn’t always acknowledge last season when he didn’t fully grasp something in the offense.
“He would just kind of take it in and try and figure it out, and I told Josh, I was like, he’s gotten past that,” Gase said. “If he doesn’t understand something, he’ll tell me. And that’s experience. That’s what one year does for you. One year in this league feels like 10. So he probably feels like he’s 10 years out of college.”
Darnold started 13 games as a rookie, missing three with a foot injury that might have been a blessing in disguise. In the Jets’ final four games, Darnold was one of the NFL’s most productive and efficient quarterbacks, closing the season by going 80 of 125 (64.0 completion percentage) for 931 yards with six touchdowns and only one interception.
“He finished strong,” running back Bilal Powell said, “and you want that momentum going into the offseason.”
Darnold has been terrific so far through three training camp practices, including Saturday’s session in pads. He has shown a good grasp of Gase’s offense and has been making consistently good decisions with the football.
“He’s 22 years old and he can throw the piss out of the ball,” Gase said, “so it’s fun to call plays.”
Darnold knows all eyes are on him this summer: those of his coaches and teammates, the fans and the media. And, the quarterback believes he can handle all the attention.
“I think, whether I want to call myself a leader or not, I think it’s just me being the guy that I am every single day,” Darnold said. “I think, as a quarterback, yeah, you have to be able to lead. There’s not a better way to put it, I don’t think. You just have to be able to tell the guys what to do on every single play and if one guy messes up or you might want the route to look a different way or maybe someone messes up pass protection or even if I mess up a pass protection or mess up a throw, I have to communicate: ‘How can we get it better?’
“Because on Sundays, there’s no room for error. We just have to be clicking on all things and in practice is the time to fix it. And for me, I have to be very outspoken about what’s right and what’s wrong.”
NOTES: Gase said RB Le’Veon Bell missed a portion of practice for the second straight day because of league-mandated drug testing. “Since he wasn’t here in the spring, they have to do everything now,” Gase said. The coach added that it’s a common occurrence for players to be called inside for drug testing. “You guys don’t see it all the time. You know, in the season sometimes we can be out at practice where a guy gets pulled off. It happens a lot in OTAs, you know, guys will come out late because they’ve got to do that.”
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