Sam Darnold learned that he disliked the Cleveland Browns a few days after the rest of the world did.
He was not listening when the news originated on Colin Cowherd’s radio show in a vaguely sourced “little nugget” relayed by Sports Illustrated reporter Albert Breer. Cowherd then added an unsourced spin to the report, name-dropping the Browns. The rumor was laundered through various radio stations, blogs, websites and television debate shows until, after a few days, Darnold heard, for the first time, that he thought the Browns were so incompetent that he might spurn the NFL draft to avoid them.
Not long afterward, Darnold finished a practice at USC and approached his parents, who had watched the session from the sideline.
“Man,” he said to them, “have you guys heard about this whole Browns thing?”
To the Darnold family, the rumor was one of the more comical and confusing rumors in a season full of them.
“You know Sam well enough,” Darnold’s father, Mike, said this week. “Would he know the first thing or the last thing about Browns management?”
In his second season, Darnold has had to navigate a significantly different football landscape than when he soared to national prominence a year ago. He has waded through near constant speculation about his future, even though those close to him say Darnold doesn’t know yet whether he’ll enter the NFL draft. His play is the subject of scrutiny with an intensity he never experienced as a relatively obscure recruit. For many around the country, Darnold the draft prospect or Darnold the sports debate-show topic became an even bigger presence than Darnold the quarterback.
On Friday, for the first time in weeks, Darnold the quarterback will again have center stage, this time in the Pac-12 Conference championship game. The game presents an opportunity to give USC its first Pac-12 championship game win in what could be the next-to-last game of Darnold’s USC career.
Darnold, according to those close to him, has hardly thought about his draft status. He considered beginning the decision process after Friday’s game, according to Mike Darnold, but he decided to stick with his original inclination to hold off until after USC’s season ends “just to be fair to the team and to him,” Mike said.
After USC’s bowl game, Darnold plans to talk with trusted acquaintances, including former USC alumni and others who have played in college and the NFL. Hoping to avoid anyone with a financial stake in his decision, Darnold doesn’t plan to hire or consult with an agent during that process. The family will discuss the decision, but, Mike acknowledged, they are in new, strange territory.
“I've never been in a position where I had to weigh my options to make millions,” said Mike, who works as a medical gas plumber. “So it's a tough one.”
Darnold has avoided questions about his future. After USC’s last home game, against UCLA, the student section chanted “one more year.”
Asked about it moments later, Darnold laughed and said he wasn’t going to answer.
“I don't know what he's going to do,” Mike said. “He doesn't know what he's going to do.”
The question is compounded by the fact that Darnold’s statistics show a drop-off from last season. His performance has declined slightly in touchdowns, yards, interceptions and completion percentage, but since Darnold dropped out of serious contention for the Heisman Trophy, he has been as effective as ever. In the last seven games, Darnold has averaged 296 yards per game and has thrown 15 touchdowns against four interceptions.
"I didn't see a lot of difference in what Sam was doing from last year to this year,” coach Clay Helton said. “I thought he was making good decisions, maybe forced a ball every once in a while."
"I honestly don't play any different,” he said. He said in the second half of the season, he has been slightly more conscientious of protecting the football to prevent fumbles. And he has eliminated a few reckless throws.
The biggest change in Darnold’s performance has likely not come from Darnold at all.
“I really think this team has just matured in some areas where they’ve been forced to grow, like the offensive front, and areas where they went through some growing pains, like receiver,” said Pac-12 Networks analyst Yogi Roth, who hosts a weekly podcast with Darnold.
Darnold has been sacked 20 times, compared to six last season. And USC did not develop a consistent set of receivers until after the loss to Washington State.
“Help from everybody is helping Sam,” receiver Deontay Burnett said.
When Darnold returned home last week for the first time this season, he discussed over Thanksgiving dinner how quarterbacks are often assigned too much credit and too much blame.
Speaking about the Rose Bowl, Mike said, Darnold told his family, “Well I should've thrown for over 400 yards, I threw the ball 50 times.”
“To him that wasn't a big deal,” Mike said. “The big deal was that they won."
Darnold, Mike said, has his standards and has successfully avoided most of the media circus that comes with being a USC quarterback. He reacts to most rumors and analysis with amusement, even though he studiously tries to avoid controversial headlines.
"You've just got to block it out,” Darnold said. “There was that story about the Browns and everything, and I didn't say anything about the Browns. I've never said anything bad about a team.
“When those stories come out, I just brush them off to the side and just kind of live my life, honestly."
After Tuesday’s practice, Darnold said he was more concerned about winning USC’s first Pac-12 title in the expansion era than with the draft or whether people thought he was playing better or worse than last season or with any NFL team’s front office.
One reporter said, “So, no draft announcement? No ripping an NFL team before the championship game?”
Darnold laughed, and his voice dropped.