Boulder — This is what a real NFL quarterback looks like, Broncos Country.
Sam Darnold stopped by Colorado for a brief visit Saturday, and casually dropped 329 yards passing on the Buffaloes during a 38-24 victory by Southern Cal. If Broncos executive John Elway was smart, he never would have allowed Darnold to leave the state.
So how much money could Elway had offered Darnold as a bribe to stay, and put on a Broncos uniform for the Sunday night showdown against New England? How about $20 million? You say more like $35 million?
OK, deal. Let’s pass the hat in the parking lot at Sports Authority Field. I’m in for 17 bucks. (Hey, that’s all the cash in my wallet.)
Darnold is a painful reminder of what the Broncos lost when Peyton Manning retired. Elite quarterbacks win the Super Bowl. If Darnold decides to declare for the 2018 NFL draft, the speculation about which player will be selected No. 1 overall will end immediately.
Darnold is everything that Brock Osweiler and Trevor Siemian are not. They try to manage the game, while fans pray the Denver quarterbacks don’t invent a way to mess it up.
Darnold moves like a Maserati, if a Maserati were equipped with a rocket-launcher. The 20-year-old redshirt sophomore is built like a linebacker and has a mop of California-cool hair. Close your eyes and dream, Broncos Country. Know what you see? Elway 2.0.
USC held its postgame news conference in a room so small that brooms might be offended if you called it a closet. Darnold stepped into the claustrophobic quarters created by 20 reporters, squeezing into a microscopic space with his back against the wall, alongside his head coach and teammate Ajene Harris. With barely room to breathe, Darnold eyed the situation and announced: “This is perfect.”
He lives in a fish bowl. Darnold’s passes are so strong they can break the glass of tight windows. His scrambling ability produced a 24-yard touchdown run against CU. But it will be how Darnold handles life while hearing 100-decibel cheers for his every touchdown, while also getting criticism from the whole worldwide web each time he throws an interception that determines if he succeeds or fails at the NFL level.
“I have really enjoyed his leadership, whether it’s good times or bad,” said Trojans coach Clay Helton, who has watched Darnold tear apart Stanford in September and get stomped by Notre Dame in October.
“Can you imagine? We all know. … When you’re the quarterback at USC, to have that much pressure on you, and to do it with that much class and character on a weekly basis whether things are going good or bad, and perform for his brothers, he’s the definition of team success over individual success. That’s what I appreciate most about him.”
Even if Denver craters during the back half of the NFL season and the number of losses pile up to double digits, it’s hard to conceive how the Broncos are awarded any of the top-five picks in the draft. Sorry, the No. 6 selection won’t land them Darnold. Not even close.
Of course, there’s speculation his decision to stay at USC or go pro might be determined in part by which team drafts No. 1 overall. Maybe getting beat up in Cleveland isn’t Darnold’s idea of a dream job.
After all the damage Elway has done to the Browns through the years, think there’s any chance they would trade him the chance to draft Darnold?
His 11th game of the 2017 season was the first time Darnold did not commit a turnover. As Elway could attest, one of the hardest things for a supremely gifted young quarterback to learn is when to save being a hero for another play.
After a roller-coaster ride for these Trojans, they have emerged with a 7-1 conference record, and firmly re-established they, not Colorado, are in charge of the Pac-12 South. Darnold checks off the way he has grown along the way:
He has picked up teammates after ego-shattering losses. His deep ball accuracy is more consistent. There’s more patience in the pocket, resisting the urge to scramble at the first sign of trouble.
“There’s still some room to grow,” Darnold said.
Can I guarantee he will be the next great NFL quarterback?
Standing next to Darnold for seven minutes after one big road victory allows no more than a glimpse into his composure or how hard he’s committed to work toward being elite on the pro level.
But would Denver stand a better chance to beat New England if Darnold stayed in Colorado and started at quarterback instead of Osweiler or Siemian?
No doubt about it.