But Sam Darnold was holding out. Something about this appeal wasn’t hitting him right.
Would you wish Tom Brady a happy birthday for a video clip being put together?
The request came during a commercial shoot in July in Los Angeles. Darnold was going through some social media paces afterward when the subject was broached. Would he, as the New York Jets cornerstone quarterback, be willing to wish a happy birthday to Brady, a longtime Patriots nemesis and the man whose league throne Darnold was expected to challenge?
“Do I have to?” Darnold asked.
No, he was told. He didn’t have to.
So that was Sam Darnold’s final answer. No, he wasn’t going to be on a video wishing Tom Brady a happy birthday, even if other guys like Brees and Watson and Diggs had already done it. The refusal wasn’t mean-spirited. It wasn’t a slight. And frankly, the rationale behind it was encouraging stuff for a second-year NFL player.
Sam Darnold respects Tom Brady. But he’s here to compete with him. And that kind of thing has no boundaries or time constraints. So even in mid-July on a recording stage in California, the mentality has got to hold.
Which means no wishing Brady a happy birthday for a lighthearted video clip.
“That’s just it, man – knowing what I’ve got to do,” Darnold said when asked about the moment this week. “I’m going to get every competitive edge I can, because he’s going to do the same thing. He’s the ultimate competitor. He’s exactly where I want to be when I’m his age. To chase that, I can’t be giving him anything.”
The Jets brass didn’t know anything about the moment. But make no mistake, if guys like coach Adam Gase or general manager Joe Douglas had been in the room when it happened, they would have grown an inch. It was made of some of the small stuff teams dream about when they’re grooming a franchise quarterback. It’s the line between respect and awe – and the feeling that even a seemingly innocuous request would have been giving away a little something to Brady.
“For sure [that would have been giving Brady something],” Darnold said. “If I see him after a game, I’ll tell him good game and all that stuff. But I don’t want to give him anything. Especially to him. No.”
If the Jets franchise was looking for a mental snapshot to see where Darnold is heading, that should stand as an encouraging moment. Not just because Darnold refused a little curtsy to the king, but because he knew exactly why he wasn’t willing to do it. Despite growing up in Southern California and then starring at USC while being a big admirer of Brady, Darnold isn’t kidding himself. He has spent time thinking about what makes Brady tick. And he suspects a big part of the equation is constantly working – physically and mentally – to build and protect any edge gained. To always be competing. Even in small ways that don’t seem like a big deal.
When Darnold’s refusal was recounted to Gase this week, the coach lit up with a smile and asked, “Sam was the only one who didn’t do it?”
“He has a different way about him,” Gase said of Darnold. “He’s just like an old-school NFL quarterback. You respect him. He never blames anybody else. He holds himself to a higher standard than anyone else. He holds himself accountable. And the way he can approach guys – if something is not right, he has a way of getting the attention of guys and he has a way of commanding the huddle. … It’s hard to put it into words. He has an ‘it’ factor to him. It’s been fun for me to be around to witness a 22-year-old that has that kind of way about him.”
No doubt it’s a breath of fresh air for a head coach who has been dealing with a bit of a quarterback wasteland for the past several years of his career. There’s little argument that Gase hasn’t coached a quarterback with an “it” factor since he last guided a Peyton Manning-led offense for the Denver Broncos in 2014. And there’s also little argument that Gase’s hiring with the Jets was very much a move targeted at developing Darnold to the highest possible degree.
Thus far there have been plenty of markers that Gase has wanted to see. First, Darnold’s arm picked up even more pep this training camp as he has worked on lower body and core strength, while also maintaining a designed rest and recovery schedule. Second, he’s developing a defined groove with tight end Chris Herndon, who has a chance to be one of the best young tight ends in the NFL when he returns from his four-game suspension this season. And finally, he’s reacting in a manner that Gase wants to see when defensive coordinator Gregg Williams creates some practice havoc with the curve balls he promises every day.
There was a flicker of that on Monday, when the offense had one of its flatter performances of camp, making some mistakes and seeming to finally hit a bit of a wall. It’s what happened after the practice that had Gase feeling like Darnold was right where he should be on the developmental continuum.
“He was pissed,” Gase said. “I could tell there were some things [that bothered him]. I told him afterward, ‘I was off. I wasn’t hitting on some of my calls and that’s when I need you guys to bail me out.’ Sam was like ‘And we weren’t doing it.’”
“It’s always good to have one of those days to see how you respond the next day. … It’s hard to create that real adversity in practice and we need a little bit of that.”
No doubt, the Jets will get it. Some of it will come in the preseason lumps as the offensive line works to create chemistry with the late addition of center Ryan Kalil. More will come from Darnold working inside an offense that appears to be planning for heavy implementation of not only Le’Veon Bell, but also Ty Montgomery. And without question, a daily dose of adversity will come from Williams, whose pairing with Gase prompted another NFL head coach to say, “I can tell you right now, I’m going to have to call Gregg and remind him that Sam Darnold needs to be able to win a few situations in practice. Because Gregg will try and win every single rep against that kid.”
That might not be the worst thing for Darnold. Because when you turn this whole thing back to his competition with Brady, one of the most underrated storylines of Brady’s rise was his ability to sharpen himself against Bill Belichick’s schemes during the entirety of his Patriots career.
Williams will give Darnold the practice pressure he needs to see on a daily basis. The revamped front office will continue to upgrade the offense that gets built around Darnold. And Gase will push him to refine his game and preparation on a granular level. The rest will be up to Darnold.
The good news for the organization is that he’s showing signs big and small – in season and out – that he always wants to compete and never wants to give even a slight edge away.
Not to Tom Brady. Not to anyone. He’s just not here for that.
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