EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Sam Darnold jogged onto the field for his NFL debut and was greeted by butterflies in his stomach and cheers in the stands.
The anxiety quickly faded. The buzz only got louder.
Darnold sparkled in his NFL debut and made a strong initial case to win the Jets’ starting quarterback job as he helped lead New York to a 17-0 victory over the Atlanta Falcons on Friday night.
“I was a little nervous going out there,” Darnold said, “but I think more just excited to finally be able to play in an NFL game, even though it is preseason.”
Darnold, the No. 3 overall draft pick in April, was the Jets’ third quarterback of the game, following Josh McCown and Teddy Bridgewater. The former USC star received a standing ovation as he jogged onto the field at MetLife Stadium with 8:41 to go in the first half.
“Yeah, it was pretty cool just to get that response from the crowd,” Darnold said with a big grin. “Even when I was on the sideline, I had fans later in the fourth quarter yell, ‘Great game, Sam!'”
Darnold’s first series ended in a punt and his non-throwing left hand was checked out by trainers on the sideline after it was stepped on. But he was fine and wore a glove in the second half.
He got the crowd on its feet again just before halftime, throwing a 14-yard touchdown pass to Charles Johnson that gave New York a 17-0 lead.
The 21-year-old Darnold showed the poise of a veteran on the drive while completing six straight passes to get to the Falcons 3. He would’ve had a seventh consecutive completion, but his throw into the end zone was dropped by Johnson. Darnold went right back to Johnson on his next pass and the receiver caught a 4-yard TD toss — but was called for offensive pass interference.
On third-and-14, Darnold again threw to Johnson while rolling to his right and zipping in a pass for the score.
“My first scoring drive of my whole career was a two-minute drive going down the field,” Darnold said. “It was awesome. To get the penalty and be pushed back and for our whole offense to respond to adversity like that, it was awesome to see.”
Darnold, who finished 13 of 18 for 96 yards, sat out the first three days of training camp before his representatives and the Jets agreed on a fully guaranteed four-year, $30.25 million deal that included a $20 million signing bonus. He quickly made up for the missed time, and is being given every opportunity to win the starting job.
“I’m not going to jump to any conclusions after one game,” coach Todd Bowles said.
McCown is the incumbent and started the game, but played just one series. The 39-year-old veteran completed his only throw, a 4-yard toss to Neal Sterling.
Bridgewater came out with the starting offense for the Jets’ second possession and led New York down the field on a scoring drive, capped by Isaiah Crowell’s 16-yard catch-and-run to the end zone.
Crowell, in his first game with the Jets after four seasons in Cleveland, was evaluated for a head injury after taking a few hard hits on the play. He didn’t return.
Bridgewater, who suffered a serious knee injury in practice while with Minnesota nearly two years ago, converted a third-and-11 with an 8-yard pass to Robby Anderson — while also taking a hard hit bouncing back up. On fourth-and-3 from the Falcons 40, Bridgewater connected with Jermaine Kearse for a 6-yard gain and a first down to keep the drive alive.
Playing with the backup offensive line on his second series, Bridgewater led New York on another scoring drive capped by Taylor Bertolet’s 45-yard field goal.
“Overall, it was a great day,” said Bridgewater, who finished 7 of 8 for 85 yards. “It was good to be back out there with the guys, flying around and scoring touchdowns and winning football games.”
Matt Ryan played the first series for the Falcons, and completed his only attempt to rookie Calvin Ridley for a 2-yard loss.
He was replaced by veteran Matt Schaub, who went 9 of 9 for 54 yards while playing the rest of the first half.
Atlanta got its initial first down of the game with 10 seconds left in the first half on Schaub’s 10-yard pass to Eric Saubert.
The Falcons, who finished with 11 first downs, were also called for 10 penalties resulting in 71 yards lost.
“I thought penalties in this game cost us,” coach Dan Quinn said. “It created some difficult field positions to convert, so we didn’t get the looks that we wanted to. That part of our game we certainly need to clean up.”
Players from both teams stood during the anthem, with no demonstrations. The Jets linked arms on the sideline, including owner Christopher Johnson, as they did last season.
Atlanta wide receiver Julio Jones and running back Devonta Freeman did not play, despite being healthy. Kicker Matt Bryant and offensive tackle Ty Sambrailo had previously been scratched.
Several Jets didn’t play, including rookie tight end Chris Herndon, who Bowles said was banged up in practice and got the night off. Also out because of injuries were: left tackle Kelvin Beachum, linebacker Lorenzo Mauldin, defensive tackle Deon Simon, rookie cornerback Parry Nickerson, and running back Eli McGuire.
Atlanta tried to stop the shutout in the closing seconds, but David Marvin was short on a 42-yard field-goal attempt as time expired.
Sterling left in the third quarter with an ankle injury and didn’t return. … Jets cornerback Buster Skrine left after injuring his shoulder in the first quarter. … Falcons backup guard Jamil Douglas left with a finger injury.
Falcons: home vs. Kansas City on Aug. 17.
Jets: at Washington on Aug. 16.
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