Sam Darnold‘s brutal production to begin the 2020 season mirrors some of the most disappointing quarterbacks in Jets franchise history.
I’m a huge proponent of avoiding an overreliance on box score stats to evaluate how well a player is performing. Standard statistics are severely lacking in context. That’s why I do my own grading of Sam Darnold’s performance each week – to mix in that essential context.
With that said, Darnold’s raw statistical production here in 2020 stands out from the crowd so blatantly that it has to be taken into account. It has not just been disappointing, shaky, or mediocre. It has been downright atrocious.
The most important factor at play is that we can trust the value of Darnold’s raw numbers since the Darnold that shows up on film looks just as bad as the Darnold on the league-wide statistical leaderboards. If the film disagreed with the numbers, I would adamantly defend Darnold’s production and point out how his statistics tell the wrong story. That’s what I did throughout the 2018 and 2019 seasons. While Darnold produced rather poorly in the box score, the film showed a highly promising young quarterback who was far from perfect but seemed to be on the cusp of unlocking his uber potential if he could get better support. So, he deserved to be defended.
This year, Darnold’s brutal numbers tell the correct story.
While the support around him has remained weak, that cannot stop us (or the Jets’ front office) from evaluating Darnold independent of his surroundings. He has a responsibility to fulfill on every play regardless of what the play-caller and the other 10 players on offense do. This season, Darnold has executed his own responsibilities at a far less effective level than he did in late-2018 and throughout the second half of 2019. Rather than appearing “on the cusp” as he did throughout his previous 17 starts entering the 2020 season, Darnold has taken a step back, frequently making elementary mistakes and leaving potential big plays on the field at an alarming rate.
Due to years of insufficient team-building and awful coaching, the Jets have allowed Darnold to regress mightily. His free-fall is largely not his fault, but it is the reality nonetheless. He has played very poor football and his numbers properly reflect that.
With Darnold’s statistical production being relatively accurate regarding his true level of play, let’s dig into his numbers and see how they stack up historically.
Passer rating versus league average
Darnold has a 65.0 passer rating this season, which ranks 31st out of 32 qualified quarterbacks, better than only Drew Lock (63.3).
The NFL league average passer rating this season is 94.6, an all-time record. Darnold’s passer rating is 29.6 points below that average.
If Darnold finished the season with that margin of -29.6, it would be the worst ever for a Jets starting quarterback. Out of the 60 quarterback seasons in Jets franchise history with at least 200 passes, the worst passer rating versus league average belongs to Kellen Clemens, who had a margin of -21.7 (60.9 vs. 82.6) in 2007. Rounding out the top-five are Mark Sanchez‘s 2009 season (-20.0), Ryan Fitzpatrick‘s 2016 season (-19.7), Browning Nagle‘s 1992 season (-19.6), and Geno Smith‘s 2013 season (-19.5).
Not exactly a murderer’s row.
Net yards per attempt
With 912 passing yards on 161 pass attempts and 119 yards lost through sacks over 18 sacks, Darnold is averaging a league-worst 4.4 net yards per attempt (NY/A), which adds sacks and sack yardage to standard yards per pass attempt.
If maintained, that would be the worst mark by a qualified quarterback beyond his rookie season since JaMarcus Russell for the Raiders in 2009 (3.9).
The 2020 NFL average for NY/A is currently 6.55, on track for a league record. Darnold’s mark of 4.43 falls below that by 2.12. That would smash the Jets franchise record for the worst margin versus league average (min. 200 passes), currently held by Brooks Bollinger‘s 2005 margin of -1.32.
Yards per attempt
Even without sack yardage included, Darnold’s production on a per-attempt basis has been historically weak.
Darnold is currently ranked last in the NFL with 5.66 yards per attempt. No qualified quarterback has finished a season with a worse rate since Ryan Mallett stumbled to a mark of 5.48 in 2015.
With the 2020 league average at 7.39 (5th-highest in league history behind 1961-63 and 1965 seasons), Darnold falls below by 1.73.
That margin of -1.73 would be second-worst in Jets franchise history (min. 200 passes), ahead of only Joe Namath‘s 1976 season (-1.89). That was Namath’s age-33 season, his final campaign with the Jets after years of injuries.
Darnold has tossed 41 conversions (touchdowns or first downs) over 161 pass attempts for a rate of 25.5%, worst in the NFL. This season’s league average is an all-time high 37.2%.
The last qualified quarterback to post a rate worse than 25.5% was Jimmy Clausen in his 2010 rookie season for Carolina with a rate of 24.4%. The NFL average that season was 34.0%, so Darnold is actually on track to finish even worse versus league average than Clausen did that season.
If we want to find the last non-rookie quarterback to do worse in this category than Darnold currently is, we once again have to go back to JaMarcus Russell in 2009, who posted a mark of just 23.6% that season. The league average in 2009 was 33.7%, giving Russell a margin of -10.1% compared to Darnold’s margin of -11.7% this season, so Darnold is still even worse.
In fact, since 1994, which is as far back as passing first down stats are available for individual players, there has not been a single qualified quarterback to finish a season with a worse conversion rate versus league average than Darnold’s current mark of -11.7%. That would be the worst margin in the stat’s 27-season history if maintained.
With poor coaching, a severe lack of pass-catching talent at his disposal, and an offensive line that is still subpar (albeit much-improved over 2019), Darnold’s production ceiling is obviously limited. He cannot put up fantastic numbers in this situation. No quarterback would be able to do that.
However, does that mean Darnold should be excused for producing at a level that puts him on track for one of the worst quarterbacking seasons of all time? Certainly not. With similar or arguably worse help around him in 2018 and 2019, he was never even close to this unproductive.
If Darnold were playing at a level similar to his previous 17 starts entering 2020 (the final four games of 2018 and all 13 in 2019) it would be a perfectly acceptable output given the circumstances. While he still left a lot to be desired throughout that stretch, he was competent overall and showcased elite flashes relatively frequently. Continuing to play that way here in 2020 at just 23 years old would leave him with a still-feasible chance of breaking out either later this season or in 2021. Unfortunately, he has come nowhere near accomplishing that.
It has been sad to watch unfold, but Darnold’s 2020 season has been a disaster of historic proportions thus far.