Last year was supposed to be the big moment for Sam Darnold, when he built on all the promise he showed as a rookie and took the next step to join the NFL's elite. Then mono happened. Then the Jets fell apart. And the quarterback's breakout season turned into a bit of a sophomore slump.
That has pushed Darnold's arrival date to … well, now.
This is the year - or at least it should be - when the world finds out if the Jets are right about their 22-year-old quarterback. He's been very good through his first two years, with many flashes of brilliance. But the Jets traded three second-round picks to draft him third overall in 2018 because they believed he was going to be great.
And that's what this season is about. He's had a full year now in Adam Gase's offense. He's got a new and improved offensive line in front of him and a seemingly better receiving corps. As the Jets' virtual offseason program began on Monday morning, all the tools for big leap from Darnold seemed to be in place.
"I feel like things are going to move in the right direction," Gase said, when he was asked about Darnold on a conference call with reporters on Monday morning. "It's hard for me to talk about these mythical steps that everybody's talking about. All I know is we need to find a ways to win games and put ourselves in position to where we can make the tournament. That's what the goal is."
Yes it is, because it has been far too long since the Jets have done either. They've had losing records for four straight seasons and eight of the last nine, and haven't made the playoffs since 2010. And unbelievably the Jets have gone through 10 starting quarterbacks since then.
But their hopes and dreams of returning to the playoffs - not to mention making the Super Bowl that has eluded them for more than 50 years - now all ride on Darnold taking that "mythical step".
Gase obviously thinks he can do it, especially after the 6-2 finish to last year's 7-9 season. Darnold is entering the second year of the Gase offense, which is a huge advantage. He's reaching the point where he knows the offense "cold" and can think less and just play.
"Really it's 'Grab a hold of this offense,'" Gase said. "I know that he watches last year's stuff and it gets him fired up because he knows "I know I can do this better. I know how this is supposed to look.' His brain is working so much faster when you go into Year 2 of these things because you know all the little tiny details of what the offense is about.
"Now it's more about playing faster, adjust to things that maybe you didn't' talk about, adjusting to things you've never seen before, and being able to do those little tiny things so much quicker just because of experience and studying the film and learning from your mistakes."
Darnold said last year he was able to play a little faster than he was as a rookie because he had finally adjusted to life in the NFL. But his ascension was definitely complicated by a coaching change that brought in a new offensive scheme. Then his growth was complicated again by his bout with mono that hit him in August, kept him out of action for nearly a month. He later admitted he didn't feel like himself for much of the first half of the season.
Of course, Darnold's growth isn't exactly complication-free this offseason either. Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, he's stuck at home in California away from his teammates, studying and working out on his own. As of Monday, when the Jets opened their virtual offseason program, he's allowed to join the Jets' meetings for two hours per day, but the rest of his offseason progress will have to be done on his own.
But that's an obstacle, not an excuse. He has no more excuses. He's heading into his third year in the league, his second year in the offense, and he has what looks like a better team around him. It's his team now in virtually every way.
So whatever that "mythical step" is, it's time for Darnold to take it. And even if he's far from Florham Park, N.J., the process of doing that is beginning right now.