Imagine what his second Opening Day must feel like for Sam Darnold:
Adam Gase whispering sweet offensive nothings in his ear. Le’Veon Bell champing at the bit behind him to remind the world of his dual-threat genius after a year away. Ryan Kalil centered in front of him making perfect calls, and Kelechi Osemele one big, nasty body over looking to maul somebody. Jamison Crowder lined up to his left or to his right knowing how a slot receiver is supposed to get open in traffic. Fiery defensive coordinator Gregg Williams directing defensive quarterback C.J. Mosley and precocious rookie Quinnen Williams to get him the ball back at all costs, or almost all costs.
A raucous, roaring JetLife Stadium crowd, filled with No. 14 jerseys, cheering wildly for you, making you feel like everyone’s favorite son, everyone’s adopted son.
This is a good time to be Sam Darnold, and it is a good day to be a Jets fan — still 0-0 when a new season, all these years after Jan. 12, 1969, kicks off Sunday afternoon at 1 against the Bills, still tied with the Patriots, fueled with unbridled hope this young franchise pilot is ready to take flight and bring the team along for the ride, soaring all the way up to football heaven.
Fifty-one years without a Super Bowl championship and eight years without a playoff berth are soul-sapping droughts, and, fairly or unfairly, it is Darnold’s mandate and ambition to end it.
And the way he will end it is by taking that quote-unquote second-year leap other young franchise quarterbacks have taken, and lifting his Jets in the process.
Because even as the Jets have begun building around Darnold, nothing historic will have a chance to happen unless and until he becomes:
And the sooner the better if poisonous Antonio Brown is not going to rock Bill Belichick’s six-ring boat and start catching TD passes from Tom Brady in Week 2.
When I asked Darnold on the eve of training camp if he thinks his team can win a Super Bowl this year he said, “I think this team can, yeah. But I’m not gonna guarantee anything.”
There is nothing more exhilarating for a fan base than to watch its chosen one grow with each passing baby step until he is running, and running fast, step for step with the big boys.
From Day 1, he has embraced everything about what it means to be a New York franchise quarterback, and completely understood the obligations and responsibilities of the job.
No one should expect him to be Joe Namath, because there was only one Joe Namath, and Joe Namath wasn’t even Joe Namath as an NFL sophomore. But Darnold has the arm and the accuracy and, of course, better legs than Namath, and rare improvisational skills that can keep plays alive.
Then add in the requisite mental toughness and resilience and unflappability and same-guy-every-day temperament, and you can understand why Gase wanted to coach him, why Bell wanted to play with him, why GM Joe Douglas wanted to inherit him.
“I think his composure is really impressive at such a young age,” Kalil said. “Being a Year 2 quarterback, that’s what you want out of a franchise quarterback, is someone who can make mistakes, still take chances, and still be able to go back taking those chances.”
It took Eli Manning nearly four years before his defensive mates truly believed in him. It has taken Darnold one season and a second training camp. When he speaks, everyone listens. Everyone can see he is more comfortable as a leader.
“I don’t know how high his ceiling is,” Bell said. “Anything you want from a quarterback, he has that. So now it’s gonna take how much he wants it.”
Ben Roethlisberger had already played nine seasons when Bell became a Steeler. Roethlisberger was 31. Bell was 21. Darnold is 22. Bell is 27 now.
“Personality-wise, they’re different,” Bell told The Post. “But skill set-wise and the way they play football, I see a lot of similarities.”
Big Ben became the youngest quarterback to win a Super Bowl in his second season. He was 23. He had won a second by the time Bell joined him.
“Sam still has a lot of kid in him,” Bell said. “When I got with Ben, he was like 32, or 30, he won some Super Bowls, he won games.
“Sam, you kind of see it like … he wants that. He’s hungry for it.”
Imagine what becoming the second Jets quarterback who never had to pay for a meal in this town would feel like for Sam Darnold.