Troy Aikman: What Sam Darnold can learn from my brutal rookie year

CLEVELAND — Troy Aikman rode the America’s Team rookie roller-coaster and lived to tell about it, all the way to Canton, Ohio. And this is what he would tell Sam Darnold:

“I was given some advice when I was coming into the league,” Aikman told The Post, “and it was simply, ‘Just try to maintain an even keel.’ I think when you come from college, and you’ve had success, that’s kind of the expectation when you come into the league, and you’re gonna lose some games. What ultimately separates the great quarterbacks in our game from the ones that are good is an ability to just lock in and get focused week in and week out.”

A stable ownership/organization and nurturing coaching staff is always a factor, of course.

“But all things being equal,” Aikman said, “I think what separates the quarterbacks is those that are able to just lock in and get focused week in and week out at the task and know that, ‘OK, what happened yesterday is over with, you gotta go back and you gotta do it all over again.’

“It’s a long year. Those guys that have been able to sustain success in this league, they have the ability to do that. Tom Brady’s been doing it for years, and Aaron Rodgers has been doing it for years, and Drew Brees. And when you talk to guys like that, that have had that kind of success, the thing you always hear is the preparation and the way that they study during the week and they don’t take any shortcuts and they have the process that they go through each and every week, and that’s true. If you don’t do that, you’re not gonna be able to play at a high level week in and week out.”

So far so good. Darnold has been the same guy every day, and Aikman, Fox’s lead NFL game analyst, has been impressed.

“I had him at the top of my board,” Aikman said, “and fully expect him to have a great career.”

Aikman was fortunate to have Jerry Rhome as his Cowboys quarterbacks coach in 1989.

“Jerry Rhome just refused to let me lose confidence,” Aikman said. “Even when I’d come off the field and be about as down as you could get, he just wouldn’t let me get discouraged.

“I get asked a lot if I think it’s best for young quarterbacks to sit and wait, or get thrown out there and play. I only know one way, and it worked for me, and we’ve got examples of both that have worked, we’ve got examples of both that haven’t worked. But I think the most important part in that when you’re evaluating a quarterback, if you’re on the staff, is if you do play a young quarterback, and since we’re talking about Sam, is there’s no reason for him to be discouraged right now. I think he’s come in and really done a nice job.

“But there are going to be tough moments, and you just don’t want a quarterback beginning to doubt himself and lose his confidence. And if that happens, then I think you need to address it. But I don’t sense that happening to a guy like him who’s had as much success as he’s had.”

Growing pains? Aikman, the first overall pick, knew from growing pains. And just plain pain.

“The most physical beating I took was Thanksgiving Day my rookie year,” he recalled. “Surprisingly, we had not yet played the Eagles. I don’t need to tell you who they had on that team — with Reggie (White), and Clyde Simmons, and Seth Joyner, it went on and on and on. And so when that game ended, I think I had every body part X-rayed. I knew something was broke, but unfortunately nothing was, and I had to go face ’em again two weeks later (laugh) and go through it all over again.

“I was 0-11 as a starter, there were plenty of games I didn’t play very well in. But there also were a handful of games that I did play well in. In fact, I thought I played really well. And yet we lost. And I just remember thinking after some of those games where I felt that I’d played really well and we had a chance to win, only to lose at the end, I was thinking, ‘Man, what do you have to do to win a game in this league?’ That was my first year, and in my 12th year, I still had never lost sight of how hard it was to win in this league, even after having won (three) Super Bowls.”

Darnold isn’t facing the same challenges that confronted Aikman — a new owner (Jerry Jones) and a head coach without NFL experience (Jimmy Johnson).

“It was tough. I went to the worst team in football, and after one year we were still the worst team in football (chuckle),” Aikman said. “I think my rookie year was probably pretty unique to most anyone else’s that’s ever played.”

Darnold will have a rookie honeymoon season of sorts.

“I think Jeremy Bates has done a good job of trying to get the ball out of his hands quickly, moving the pocket, not keeping him in a stationary spot,” Aikman said. “And I think that at times he’s taken some big hits, and all those things are part of the process for a young quarterback.

“I think ultimately, the quarterbacks earn their money on third downs, and that’s easy to say for a guy like Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees … but after two weeks, he’s got the second-best rating on third downs.”

Aikman believes arm strength is overrated.

“He didn’t have the strongest arm in the draft, but I think he’s got more than enough arm,” Aikman said. “I’ve always felt arm strength is overrated. I think that anticipation is more important.”

Aikman was asked about Darnold’s elongated throwing motion.

“I think at times it got him in trouble in college,” Aikman said, “just trying to do a little bit too much with the interceptions and some of the fumbles. And I said it at the time during the draft, I think you can coach those things up. You don’t want to take all that away from him, because a lot of that was what allows him to improvise and be able to make some of the plays that he’s capable of making. He throws the ball well on the move, he’s able to escape the rush and make throws in awkward positions.”

Aikman rated Josh Rosen second and Baker Mayfield third.

“Mayfield reminds me a little of (Tony) Romo in that if you just watched him move around and you timed him in a 40, you wouldn’t come away that impressed,” Aikman said. “Mayfield’s not all that fast, but yet he’s able to make plays, and he’s able to avoid the pass rush, and Romo was able to do those types of things.

“I think he’s gonna be a helluva pro, I really do, and the reason is I believe he has all the ability that it requires, but I also think he has a moxie about him that he’s just unfazed, and I think that’s gonna serve him well.”

Sam Darnold too.

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