The amount of praise that Sam Darnold has received for a lackluster outing against the Browns highlights how low the bar has dropped for the once-mesmerizing quarterback.
The Cleveland defense is not good against the pass, entering Week 16 ranked 25th in pass defense DVOA. And, at MetLife Stadium, they played like a 25th-ranked passing defense, botching numerous coverages to leave wide open targets galore.
Yet, despite facing a weak opponent that handed him plenty of easy throws, Sam Darnold still produced at a poor level. He surely had his moments of excellence, but overall, Darnold once again didn’t do much more than manage the game. Even if that is the bar, Darnold arguably failed to clear it.
Darnold completed 16 of 32 passes for 175 yards. That’s a measly average of 5.5 yards per attempt, 7th-worst of 32 qualified quarterbacks in Week 16 prior to Monday Night Football. While he officially tossed two touchdowns and no interceptions, he had two throws hit Browns defenders on the hands for should-be picks that were dropped, one near the start of the game to Terrance Mitchell and one late in the fourth quarter to Denzel Ward. Plus, he had a lost fumble that was incorrectly ruled an incomplete pass by the officials (according to CBS rules analyst Gene Steratore).
To Darnold’s credit, he was let down by Breshad Perriman on a deep bomb for a potential 49-yard touchdown. It was slightly overthrown, but Perriman could have tracked it better.
Outside of that one throw to Perriman, it has to be noted how unimpressive Darnold tended to be in this game. Not only was his overall production poor as it is, but the few productive plays he did register were typically lacking in difficulty and often were primarily the product of a factor besides his own individual effort.
Darnold’s two touchdown passes to Jamison Crowder and Chris Herndon were completely uncontested by the defense due to botched coverages and probably would have been made by any NFL quarterback – those combined for 41 yards, nearly a quarter of his total for the game. Darnold had six other completions for 10+ yards outside of the two touchdowns, combining for 92 yards, and of those 92 yards, 87 of them were gained after the catch and only five were gained through the air. They were all dump-offs or screens with excellent after-the-catch plays made by the receivers.
The most daunting fact of all is that outside of his two easy touchdowns, Darnold did not throw a single first down conversion that was caught beyond the first down marker.
Darnold took the 12th-highest average time to throw in Week 16 (2.84 seconds), but all he could do with that solid amount of time was check the ball down, averaging a tiny 4.1 air yards per completion, fourth-lowest of the week ahead of only Chase Daniel, Dwayne Haskins and Tua Tagovailoa. Against the Rams in Week 15, he averaged the exact same lowly mark of 4.1.
What happened to the awe-inspiring, gun-slinging chance-taker we saw over his first two years as a Jet? Darnold has devolved into a game manager, and not even a good one at that. His surroundings are hardly an excuse for his lack of explosiveness – Joe Flacco played in the same offense and currently ranks sixth among 43 qualified QBs with 7.0 air yards per completion this season. Darnold ranks 37th with an average of 4.9.
Downfield opportunities were drawn up for Darnold against Cleveland. He just did not take them often and did not convert when he did. Darnold went 2 for 12 on passes over 10 yards downfield, with the only two completions being the wide-open touchdowns. Outside of those, he was 0 for 10.
Even the advanced metrics – ones that account for a quarterback’s quality of support and aim to look solely at his performance independent of anything going on around him – see Darnold’s performance against the Browns as a subpar one.
Darnold posted a Total Quarterback Rating (QBR) of 36.4, fifth-worst out of 32 qualifiers in Week 16 prior to Monday night. His completion percentage versus expectation (via NFL Next Gen Stats) was -3.9%, 11th-worst. Darnold’s Pro Football Focus passing grade of 56.0 against Cleveland is well below the 2020 positional average of 74.0 and ranks ninth-worst this week. His adjusted completion percentage (accounting for drops, throwaways, batted passes, etc.) of 68.0% against the Browns is also well below the 2020 average of 75.7% and ranks eighth-worst this week.
Being a game manager is fine if it leads to productivity, but neither Darnold nor the Jets offense was productive in this game. We already saw Darnold’s efficiency, and as for the Jets, they posted an offensive EPA (estimated points added) of 0.77 against the Browns, similar to the Cincinnati Bengals’ season average (0.63), which ranks 26th. In other words, their true offensive efficiency was actually quite poor when you consider factors like down, distance, time on the clock, field position, and the number of drives and plays.
It’s tough to grasp the reasoning for the hype behind this performance against Cleveland. Darnold continues to sputter, looking nothing like the tantalizing, exciting, promising young quarterback that he was over his first two seasons. From 2018-19, Darnold’s most-hyped performances were legitimately great outings that deserved praise, such as his shreddings of the Broncos, Colts, Texans and Packers in 2018 and the Cowboys, Giants, Washington Football Team and Raiders in 2019. He was fantastic in those games, spreading the ball all over the field and constantly making something out of nothing. Now, he is being hyped up for checking the ball down and not even hitting 200 yards against a bad defense, nearly turning the ball over three times in the process.
The bar has dropped to the floor for a once-invigorating franchise quarterback prospect.
Early this season, I noted how it would be crucial to evaluate Darnold beyond his statistics in 2020. This is certainly a tough situation for him to put up strong numbers, so we need to look at him independent of what his teammates or coaches are doing.
The problem is, Darnold’s film looks just as bad as his stats. I created my Sam Darnold Grades series to get a look at the true quality of his own individual performance regardless of what the numbers say or what every other person on the field did. And, from grading every play of his career based on watching them all many times on the All-22 tape, I have found that Darnold has regressed mightily in 2020 compared to both 2018 and 2019. He has developed countless issues that he did not have in his first two seasons, and many of them have little to do with support or coaching. Whereas he was once just a few fixable problems away from stardom, he now has a multitude of weaknesses that most likely will not be solved simply by removing Adam Gase or adding some great teammates.
This play from the Jets’ Week 12 loss to Miami sums up Darnold’s season. Would Darnold have made this play if Allen Robinson or Kenny Golladay ran the wheel route instead of Crowder, or if Andy Reid called the play instead of Gase? I’m not sure about that.
Yes, every NFL quarterback misses open guys at times, but Sam Darnold is now doing it on a routine, game-by-game basis. How he doesn't pull the trigger here on a Jamison Crowder wheel will remain one of football's greatest mysteries. #TakeFlight pic.twitter.com/XiwqI7codo
— Robby Sabo (@RobbySabo) November 30, 2020
A big play is there to be made and Darnold doesn’t make it. He has recorded countless reps like this one in 2020, far more frequently than he did in 2018-19.
If Darnold had a 2020 campaign reminiscent of his first two seasons – in which he stockpiled performances that showcased elite potential even if he lacked game-to-game consistency – we would be having very different conversations right now. Keeping Darnold would be a very plausible move, maybe even an obvious one.
That hasn’t happened, though. Darnold has not had a single game in 2020 that comes close to any of his top 10-or-so best outings over his first two seasons. The peak of his praise this year comes after a game in which he threw for 175 yards on 5.5 yards per attempt against a bottom-10 passing defense, despite most of that unimpressive yardage total being created after the catch or by busted coverages, and the fact that he had multiple turnover-worthy plays that each luckily broke in his favor.
It’s extremely unfortunate we have reached this point after watching Darnold show so much intrigue at Southern California and then throughout much of his first two NFL seasons. He’s a professional, classy leader who deserves a chance to turn his career around in a better situation.
However, regardless of how he got to this point or who’s to blame for it, this is the player Darnold is right now. Week after week, he continues to make it more clear that Joe Douglas and the Jets need to find his replacement this offseason.