Strange, but true: The New York Jets' offensive player with the most starts in a Jets uniform is -- wait for it ... Sam Darnold, their 23-year-old quarterback. With 26 starts over the past two seasons.
In NFL years, Darnold still qualifies as a young pup, but he has to grow up quickly on a rebuilt unit that bears little resemblance to last season. It's quite clear, from listening to coaches and players, the narrative around him has changed. The expectations have risen. In Darnold-speak, the Jets need him to be The Dude.
"The thing I see with him is more command," Jets offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said. "He can speak with more confidence.
"That's what you hope to see in the second year of a system -- the command of the offense. Last year, he learned it. We need to see command from him now."
Those are his marching orders, way different than the previous orders. For Darnold, this marks the end of the innocence. After two middling seasons, it's time for him to make that jump and erase all doubts about the future of the quarterback position. It won't be easy, especially with a suspect cast of wide receivers, but he certainly has the physical talent and experience to be that commanding presence.
The Jets have been together for two weeks and they still haven't conducted a practice in pads (that happens Monday), but there's already a buzz about Darnold's demeanor.
"Sam is a lot more comfortable," Jets running back Le'Veon Bell said. "You can tell by the way he's talking to guys. There's more of a sternness to him. He's stern with guys now because he's like, 'OK, guys, we've got to get this thing going.' The walk-throughs last year and this year [are] night and day."
Darnold's development, more than anything else, is the key to the season. If the Jets finish 7-9 again but see significant improvement from him, their future forecast is mostly sunny. If it goes the other way, if Darnold regresses, they roll back into the all-too-familiar place for a franchise that hasn't won a playoff game in a decade.
Darnold posted a 43.6 Total QBR last season, which ranked 25th out of 30 qualifying quarterbacks -- slightly lower than his rookie Total QBR (45.9). In fairness, he played 2019 behind one of the worst offensive lines in the league and had no running game whatsoever (ranked 32nd) -- hardly quarterback-friendly conditions.
Darnold's favorite receiver, Robby Anderson, is gone. He still has Jamison Crowder, who is reliable in the slot, but he has two new receivers on the outside, the well-traveled Breshad Perriman and rookie Denzel Mims (who will miss time because of a hamstring injury). They're fast, really fast, but they're not the precision route runners Darnold needs. Mims has that potential, but he's not there, yet. There will be growing pains, and the coaches are counting on Darnold to minimize them during the transition period.
"You become an extension of the coaching staff," Loggains said of his third-year quarterback. "We have some new wide receivers in this thing, and he's responsible for them just like a coach is. You have to make sure they know what to do and that they're prepared when we play Week 1."
The Jets are excited about Darnold because of his encouraging finish last season, when his comfort level was "night and day" (sound familiar?) compared to early in the season, according to coach Adam Gase. That allowed him to focus on the important things -- ball location, progressions and pass coverage.
"And it'll get better moving forward," Gase said.
Meanwhile, the get-acquainted process is underway, as Darnold continues to learn his new teammates. And vice versa.
"He's a cool California dude," Jets guard Greg Van Roten said. "Good quarterback. Unflappable. I'm excited to get to know him better and block for him."
Other than Mims and rookie left tackle Mekhi Becton, Darnold will be the youngest front-line player on offense -- the youngest guy with a responsibility that belies his youth.
And that is to command.