Once New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold starts to consistently recognize advantages pre-snap, the man will flourish.
Coincidence is a hell of a thing. Some folks believe there are no coincidences. Others remain true to the idea there are plenty, and if not analyzed properly, lead to a path of misinformation and destruction.
In a non-coincidental fashion (I think), coincidences are important in the game of football. Other than the players and select employees of a particular team, many of the in-the-huddle calls and pre-snap adjustments are complete unknowns. Best guesses and football knowledge help get onlookers part of the way home, but the true story is hardly ever realized.
It’s why coincidence is important. The moment New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold starts piling up plays that feature a tremendous end-result on the heels of what looked to be an excellent pre-snap read, all of those instances turn into reality. Until then, it’s merely a coincidence.
For example, the 92-yard touchdown bomb to Robby Anderson in Week 6 a year ago features tremendous athletic ability on the part of Darnold. He sidesteps edge pressure, locates his weapon and throws a dart from an open stance that would even impress John Elway.
But did this play feature pre-snap smarts? Did Darnold recognize what turned out to be the most important part of the play? This is the question.
Adam Gase comes out in a 2×2 that features a tighter-than-usual split for Anderson on the boundary side. The first-and-10 situation has the opponent, the Dallas Cowboys, playing with a safety in the box and one single-high.
The first key is the slot motion. How Dallas reacts to Jamison Crowder traveling across the formation means everything.
The slot corner chases, which is completely normal, while the safeties rotate. Rod Marinelli was the Cowboys defensive coordinator at the time, and he believed in a system that featured two safeties who could exchange positions when needed. That doesn’t mean both of his safeties are identically versatile.
Jeff Heath, who is the more natural strong safety, rotates from the box into the single-high look, while Xavier Woods, who is more of the cover safety, drops down into the box. Watch Darnold’s gestures the moment Crowder finishes his motion and Heath gets to the top of the defense.
While we don’t know for sure what Darnold did there, it would make complete sense if the reaction dealt with Heath as the centerfielder. Heath was given a 69 overall grade in pass coverage by Pro Football Focus a year ago. Woods, on the other hand, finished with a 78. Better yet, Heath’s comfortability there cannot touch Woods’s. Heath played just 284 total snaps at free safety a year ago compared to Woods’s 752.
Was this a point of emphasis during the week, to attack Heath when the Cowboys dared to make him the centerfielder? If so, and Darnold recognized it, he helped him and his team to a 92-yard score.
Watch Darnold from the end zone view:
From there, it’s just about getting the protection needed and making a great throw. Although Ryan Griffin stays in to block on this play-action, Darnold is nearly gotten to by the left edge. He was forced to sidestep the pressure and deliver a strike from an extremely open position (something Darnold likes).
The only nitpick is ball placement. Considering Anderson destroys his man on the stutter-and-go, the ball should be delivered to his outside shoulder, not inside and closer to the free safety. If the corner stuck with him, it would make sense to go straight down the seam and try to split both the corner and safety.
We’ll never know whether Sam Darnold truly felt comfortable in attacking the deep shot thanks to the Cowboys’ pre-snap reaction to the motion or not, but if the kid continues to pile up these examples, the uncertainty that revolves around whether it’s coincidence or not starts to fade away.