Sam Darnold‘s abysmal New York Jets supporting cast will limit his production, but it does not prevent us from fairly evaluating the quarterback’s potential.
Sam Darnold is not going to put up impressive numbers with his downtrodden skill position group and rudderless head coach. That’s for certain.
However, regardless of the supporting cast around him, Darnold can still be evaluated fairly if we analyze him independent of his surroundings. Is he making the right decisions? Is he executing the throws he is being asked to make? Is he lifting the team up and creating opportunities in situations where there would otherwise be none?
These are the questions that need to be asked and can be asked no matter who is running the routes or calling the plays. Having Josh Malone as a starting receiver applies as a legitimate excuse for lackluster statistical production, but it does not affect Darnold’s ability to make correct decisions, throw the ball accurately, read the field fluidly, maintain proper footwork under pressure, scramble when he should scramble, break the pocket to extend plays when the time is right, etc.
Like any quarterback, Darnold can play well and put up awful production or he can play poorly and put up solid production. That’s how the quarterback position works. His numbers are not a direct representation of his own performance, but a product of the entire offense’s performance. He is just 1-of-12 factors (offense plus play-caller) in determining what his own stats look like.
So, don’t worry about Darnold’s numbers. They are going to be ugly this year. To figure out whether or not Darnold is the man for the Jets, we need to weed out the noise and focus solely on him. Ignore that Chris Hogan is his WR1. Ignore that Adam Gase is his head coach. Ignore that Frank Gore is his RB1. Look only at his actions.
The biggest key for Darnold this year is not to put up flashy yardage and touchdown totals, but to show progress in his areas of weakness on film. If he does that, the Jets can feel good about him being their franchise quarterback for years to come, regardless of whether or not the production is there to back it up in 2020.
Let’s look at some of the areas of weakness where Darnold needs to show progress over the next 14 games if he is going to prove himself as the Jets’ unquestioned franchise quarterback entering 2021.
Darnold is often rattled under pressure, rushing the ball out to avoid a hit and thus throwing with poor footwork that leads to a dramatic decline in accuracy. On this play, Darnold takes quick pressure allowed by Connor McGovern and is forced to step up. He throws flat-footed and misses an open Chris Herndon. Additionally, Darnold misses a completely uncovered Braxton Berrios to the left even though it appeared that Berrios was his first read.
Darnold gets relatively solid protection on this next play, but overreacts to a bit of A-gap penetration allowed by Alex Lewis. Though Lewis allows his man to squeak through the gap, Lewis never lets him get an angle to pursue the quarterback. Darnold could easily slide left and continue scanning from the pocket, but instead, he hops backward and flicks the ball in mid-air, badly missing Frank Gore. Worse than the off-target pass is that Darnold failed to see a wide-open Herndon on the left side.
It appeared Darnold had read his way to Herndon, but when he felt the small bit of pressure, he instinctively moved back to Gore and rushed the ball out, even though Herndon was uncovered and Gore had a defender draped on him. That’s a worrying reaction to light, avoidable pressure.
Darnold tends to spend too much time waiting for downfield concepts to develop, leading to moments where he misses the opportunity to check the ball down. Here, the two-man scissors concept with Berrios and Malone on the left side is clearly not going to work against San Francisco’s Cover-3 with an underneath defender to the sideline. Darnold should see this immediately and dump the ball off to Gore, but he takes a few beats too long, taking a hit while attempting the dump-off and airmailing the pass.
Another missed checkdown with a hint of under-pressure struggles. When Darnold moves his eyes to Herndon underneath, he feels pressure, and attempts to avoid the hit before releasing the ball. This bit of time allows a defender to close in on Herndon and break up the pass.
Darnold needed to get that ball out quickly, even if it meant accepting a hit. His fear of contact is a problematic issue, and it shows up there. Because he fears the hit, he spends valuable time trying to avoid it, which costs him a completion. Darnold has to start throwing with proper, confident mechanics under pressure, which would require him to embrace that, sometimes, he needs to take a hard hit to make a good throw. Right now, Darnold is not willing to accept the hit to deliver the best possible throw, and instead delivers with awkward mechanics to avoid getting shellacked.
Sometimes, Darnold looks like too much of a one-read quarterback. Here, he checks to his left, doesn’t like what he sees, and takes off. Darnold gets six yards, but he misses an open Herndon over the middle for what would have been more yardage. On the right side, Hogan goes uncovered for a potentially huge gain.
Here, Darnold decides he is going to Hogan on the left side pre-snap based on the single-high, press-man look, but Buffalo rotates into Cover-2 just before the snap, making Hogan’s route a very difficult one to hit. Darnold takes a shot into the tiny window anyway. Meanwhile, on the right side, Jamison Crowder had plenty of room on an out route for an easy first down.
These are just a few examples of mistakes and bad habits that have nothing to do with the supporting cast. We need to be fair and knock Darnold when he botches a play in which there is nobody else to blame – and whether or not he minimizes those types of blunders is the crux of evaluating his development.
On the contrary, Darnold needs to be given credit for the good moments that do not yield results.
Following the 49ers game, I saw plenty of people claiming Darnold had a bad outing. They pointed to his lackluster box score stats (21/32, 179 yards, 5.6 Y/A) as proof that he did not play well and complained that the virality of the now-famous scrambling touchdown to Berrios was an overrepresentation of his performance. In reality, Darnold had a good performance that featured plenty of good throws. Casual onlookers completely ignored or never even watched what Darnold did on the other 31 throws besides the one that went viral on social media.
This scramble and would-be touchdown to Herndon is a fantastic play by Darnold that goes down as an incompletion because of a drop. If you added this seven-yard touchdown to Darnold’s actual stat-line (21/32, 179 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT), his passer rating would rise from a below-average 90.5 to a pristine 104.4.
Darnold hits Ryan Griffin for this 27-yard completion, but it gets called back due to offensive pass interference on Griffin. That takes little away from the precise back-shoulder throw by Darnold, but it hurts Darnold’s production regardless.
Say you added the Griffin throw and the Herndon touchdown to Darnold’s stat-line. His passer rating would rise all the way up to 107.3.
Here, Darnold hits Hogan perfectly on a 10-yard curl, but Hogan drops it.
Now, change that incompletion to a 10-yard completion and couple it with the Herndon and Griffin changes. Darnold’s passer rating jumps up to a sparkling 111.1.
Just by swapping the outcome of three plays where Darnold executed his job but was hung out to dry by somebody else, we get a massive change in the perception of his performance quality.
The bottom line here – Darnold can still be evaluated regardless of what is going on around him if we look beyond the stats or the excuses and place our attention solely on Darnold’s actions and decisions on each play. As outside observers, this is what we must do to get the best read on Darnold’s status as a potential franchise quarterback. At 1 Jets Drive, this is what Joe Douglas and his staff will be doing as they prepare to decide whether to stick with Sam or to hitch their horse to another wagon.
Ultimately, Darnold is not going to average 300 yards per game or lead the Jets to 25 points per game even if he does execute at a very high level, as his coach and skill position group place a firm cap on his production ceiling and that of the offense. Nevertheless, Darnold can still take a very real Year 3 leap simply by executing his own responsibilities at a much greater level of consistency than he did in 2018 or 2019.
Under-pressure poise/footwork, moving off the first read and scanning the whole field, getting to the dump-off quicker when the deep concepts aren’t open, accepting the price of an incoming hit to deliver the most accurate throw possible – these are the boxes that Darnold must check this year to prove he is a franchise quarterback, and he can check them off no matter how brutal his supporting cast is.
If you are a Darnold optimist, don’t give him a free pass for everything just because his teammates and coach are bad. If you are a Darnold skeptic, don’t get too down on him because his stats are bad. Critique him based on what he can control. Watch Darnold and Darnold only, and you will get the true story of who he is as a quarterback.