LANDOVER, Md. — A few moments after New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold completed one of the best performances of his young career, he walked to midfield and searched for Washington Redskins rookie Dwayne Haskins. Darnold had watched Haskins struggle all afternoon during the Jets’ 34-17 rout at FedEx Field, and he knew his young counterpart was hurting.
“No matter what people say, the doubters, people who are going to say anything bad, just block it out, man. Just continue to go to work, man,” Darnold said he told Haskins, because maybe more than most young quarterbacks in the NFL, Darnold could relate.
He had already endured a brutal first half of the season himself. He missed multiple games while sick with mononucleosis and suffered through a two-week stretch that included seven interceptions in losses to New England and Jacksonville. At one point, he was forced to take more command of the offense during meetings with coaches, and this week he faced the New York media and provided a vote of confidence to his embattled head coach, Adam Gase, despite the team’s 2-7 start.
Darnold started to climb out of his sophomore slump with a promising showing in a win over the New York Giants last week, and the schedule helped him again Sunday against hapless Washington. Darnold finished 19 for 30 for 293 yards passing and a career-high four touchdowns, leading the Jets to their first winning streak in 20 games.
“I think for me, it was just going back to work and understanding the process. Understand that every week is a new week and a new opportunity,” said Darnold, who made just one poor decision Sunday, a second-quarter interception to Redskins linebacker Jonathan Bostic on an attempted screen pass.
Darnold otherwise played up to the billing of a player who was expected to energize the franchise when he was selected by the Jets out of Southern California with the third pick in the 2018 draft. Darnold has shown only flashes, and despite a second straight week of facing a scuffling NFC East team, Sunday was another positive step. He threw three touchdowns in the first half alone and created a string of plays with his feet.
They included one in the first drive, when Darnold rolled out to his left and threw a 20-yard touchdown strike to tight end Daniel Brown to cap a seven-play, 75-yard drive. After another touchdown pass to wide receiver Robby Anderson in the second quarter, Darnold made his best series of throws late in the quarter, finding running back Le’Veon Bell on a tight, 20-yard completion in the slot. On the next play, Darnold scrambled out of the pocket and floated a throw to tight end Ryan Griffin for a 45-yard gain. That set up another Darnold touchdown throw to Griffin for 16 yards to make it 20-3 and trigger a spate of boos at FedEx Field.
“You see the way he contorts his body and can use his arm strength to get the ball down the field. It’s really remarkable,” Griffin said. “I’m glad he’s on our team.”
The improvisation of Darnold was not so pronounced a few weeks ago, and he said Sunday that it was a sign of him becoming more comfortable during his first year in Gase’s offense. “When plays do break down and I need to scramble, guys feel free to go out there and make a play,” Darnold said. “We’re just playing with a lot better rhythm.”
Darnold was more measured in his comments after Sunday’s win than he was a week ago after beating the Giants, when he told reporters afterward that he still believed his team could get on a roll and make the playoffs. That drew some chuckles, and it forced Gase to rein in his second-year quarterback this week, hoping Darnold would not get too far ahead of himself with seven games remaining.
Darnold continued to show his unflinching belief in his team’s future when he defended Gase’s job status this week, then followed it up with one of the best performances of his career. Yet he reminded everyone on his sideline how hard he is on himself near the end of the game, when he was ranting more about his interception to Bostic than he was focusing on any of his four touchdowns. And afterward, he remembered how fleeting success in the NFL can be when he spoke to Haskins.
“If you go to work every single day,” Darnold told Haskins, “it will be all right.”