Sam Darnold
(Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

As the New York Jets get set to make a big decision at quarterback, it’s time to rank every game of Sam Darnold‘s career to see what we can learn.

To get a more accurate grasp of the true quality of Sam Darnold’s performances, I have graded every play of his career (pass attempt, rush attempt, sack) on a scale of 1-to-10. By taking into account factors such as down, distance, time, field position, separation created by teammates, protection quality by the offensive line, quality of the coach’s play-call, and various other things, Darnold is judged far more fairly than he is by the traditional box score statistics, which do not account for any of those extremely crucial elements.

Visit here to check out my breakdowns for every Darnold performance from 2019-20. Each game includes a thorough explanation for my grade while comparing his actual performance quality to how the box score suggested he played. Film clips of his best and worst plays are also featured in each breakdown.

Today, we will be ranking all 38 of Darnold’s career performances from worst-to-best based on my overall grade for each game, which is scaled from 0-to-100 with 50 representing approximately league-average. For comparison’s sake, I will also list his box score stats.

We’re starting from the bottom and working our way up, so be warned: the tone will be largely negative to kick things off as we work through Darnold’s worst games, but once we get to the upper portion of the list, there will be plenty of worthy praise heaped Darnold’s way.

Also, keep in mind that these grades are subjective – not factual – and you are more than welcome to disagree!

38. 2020 Week 3 at Indianapolis Colts (Grade: 3.0)

  • Stats: 17/29 (58.6%), 168 yards, 1 touchdown, 3 interceptions, 2 sacks for 17 yards, 5 rushes for 20 yards
  • 5.8 yards per attempt (24th of 38) – 2020 NFL average: 7.2
  • 47.0 passer rating (33rd of 38) – 2020 NFL average: 93.6
  • Jets lose 36-7
  • Complete breakdown

This outing was far worse than the stats let on. Darnold was misfiring on wide-open throws from a clean pocket on a consistent basis. Even with a depleted wide receiver room (no Jamison Crowder, Breshad Perriman, or Denzel Mims), plays were there to be made, but Darnold could not do anything right after the first drive.

Of his three interceptions, one was partially not his fault due to a bad route by Lawrence Cager, but the other two were completely inexcusable. Darnold also had a handful of plays in which he failed to recognize wide-open targets deep down the field and instead opted to scramble or check the ball down.

The supporting cast around Darnold in Indianapolis was bad, but not bad enough to excuse a performance as horrifying as the one Darnold put out. I believe this game was worse than the next one on our list simply because there was no excuse for Darnold to be that horrendous. In the game below, there were a lot more problems around Darnold than there were in Indy.

37. 2019 Week 7 vs. New England Patriots (Grade: 3.3)

  • Stats: 11/32 (34.4%), 86 yards, 0 touchdowns, 4 interceptions, 1 sack for 13 yards, 2 rushes for -1 yards, 1 fumble (1 lost)
  • 2.7 yards per attempt (38th of 38)
  • 3.6 passer rating (38th of 38)
  • Jets lose 33-0
  • Complete breakdown

This is by far the worst game of Darnold’s career in just about any statistic out there, and one of the worst quarterbacking performances in modern NFL history. While the team around him was abysmal, blowing blitz pickups like there was no tomorrow and creating zero separation, those problems did not give Darnold an excuse to throw four brutal interceptions and have no accuracy on his deep passes. He had many chances to limit the damage by throwing the ball away, but instead, he continuously made bad situations even worse.

As mentioned earlier, I think the Colts game was a tad worse since the support was not quite as poor, but I will not argue at all with anybody who takes the “seeing ghosts” game as Darnold’s worst. These two games stand alone as rock bottom for Darnold.

36. 2018 Week 9 at Miami Dolphins (Grade: 8.5)

  • Stats: 21/39 (53.9%), 229 yards, 0 touchdowns, 4 interceptions, 4 sacks for 27 yards, 0 rushes
  • 5.9 yards per attempt (23rd of 38)
  • 31.8 passer rating (36th of 38)
  • Jets lose 13-6

A classic rookie performance of snowballing mistakes amidst a messy performance around him. Dealing with horrible snapping from Spencer Long, Darnold had massive trouble reading the Miami defense as he threw one terrible interception after the next.

This is another case of an outing in which Darnold could have escaped as a legitimate victim of his teammates if he simply threw the ball away more often, but he opted to take too many reckless chances and it resulted in a bunch of mistakes that did not need to happen.

35. 2018 Week 3 at Cleveland Browns (Grade: 10.1)

  • Stats: 15/31 (48.4%), 169 yards, 0 touchdowns, 2 interceptions, 2 sacks for 8 yards, 0 rushes
  • 5.5 yards per attempt (29th of 38)
  • 38.2 passer rating (34th of 38)
  • Jets lose 21-17

Darnold made a couple of crazy scrambling throws to Isaiah Crowell in this one, but it was ugly other than that. His accuracy in the intermediate and deep ranges was way off the mark, and he threw a lot of dangerous passes into traffic.

34. 2020 Week 1 at Buffalo Bills (Grade: 15.2)

  • Stats: 21/35 (60.0%), 215 yards, 1 touchdown, 1 interception, 3 sacks for 13 yards, 1 rush for 6 yards
  • 6.1 yards per attempt (21st of 38)
  • 75.3 passer rating (34th of 38)
  • Jets lose 27-17
  • Complete breakdown

The stats make it seem like Darnold wasn’t that bad in this one, but in reality, he was a major liability. Darnold went 8-of-9 for 58 yards on a garbage time drive in the fourth quarter, and also lucked out as a quick pass into the flat to Jamison Crowder turned into a 69-yard touchdown. Outside of those 10 throws, Darnold went 12 for 25 with 88 yards.

This was one of Darnold’s worst games from an accuracy standpoint, as he missed a ton of throws in the short-to-intermediate range. As a sign of things to come throughout the year, he also failed to see a few open receivers downfield with a favorable amount of space.

33. 2020 Week 4 vs. Denver Broncos (Grade: 21.5)

  • Stats: 23/42 (54.8%), 230 yards, 0 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, 6 sacks for 54 yards, 6 rushes for 84 yards and 1 touchdown
  • 5.5 yards per attempt (27th of 38)
  • 70.5 passer rating (30th of 38)
  • Jets lose 37-28
  • Complete breakdown

Darnold ran wild against Denver, picking up one of the league’s most impressive touchdown runs of the season and tacking on two more first down rushes, but he was just terrible in the passing game. Three of the six sacks he took were flat-out awful as he stared down an open receiver and strangely did not throw the ball. The first of those was the play on which Darnold injured his shoulder, as he failed to hit a wide-open Cager and took a completely unnecessary hit.

Field-reading has always been Darnold’s top weakness. In 2020, that problem ascended to a completely new level, and no game exemplified this issue more than the prime-time clash with Denver. It is downright scary how many open targets were left hanging by Darnold in this one. Adam Gase and the receivers did a good enough job of creating separation to give Darnold the opportunity to have a very explosive game throwing the football, but he could not capitalize.

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32. 2019 Week 16 vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (Grade: 25.2)

  • Stats: 16/26 (61.5%), 183 yards, 1 touchdown, 0 interceptions, 2 sacks for 9 yards, 4 rushes for 3 yards, 2 fumbles (1 lost)
  • 7.0 yards per attempt (16th of 38)
  • 95.5 passer rating (12th of 38)
  • Jets win 16-10
  • Complete breakdown

Darnold posted a very misleading passer rating in this game. Throwing zero interceptions is the primary reason that his rating was so high, but he had two fumbles (one lost) and threw a pair of highly dangerous passes into traffic that were nearly intercepted.

Outside of a fantastic deep touchdown to Robby Anderson on the opening drive, Darnold did not have any other elite plays in this game. He didn’t make an abhorrent amount of gruesome mistakes, but he was highly inconsistent overall, racking up small mistakes with shaky ball placement and spotty vision.

31. 2020 Week 12 vs. Miami Dolphins (Grade: 26.1)

  • Stats: 16/27 (59.3%), 197 yards, 0 touchdowns, 2 interceptions, 3 sacks for 24 yards, 2 rushes for 9 yards
  • 7.3 yards per attempt (13th of 38)
  • 51.0 passer rating (32nd of 38)
  • Jets lose 20-3
  • Complete breakdown

Darnold started off red-hot against Miami. His first 15 plays of this game may have been his best 15-play stretch of the 2020 season. He consistently made the correct read and delivered the ball all over the field with good placement.

Everything fell apart near the end of the first half and into the second half. Darnold looked at and failed to get the ball to a wide-open Crowder for a likely 55-yard touchdown with just over two minutes left in the first half, and from there on out, Darnold lost his groove. He threw two very bad interceptions in the second half in which he failed to see an open Mims and opted to force the ball into tight coverage.

30. 2018 Week 4 at Jacksonville Jaguars (Grade: 26.5)

  • Stats: 17/34 (50.0%), 167 yards, 1 touchdown, 0 interceptions, 3 sacks for 23 yards, 2 rushes for 8 yards
  • 4.9 yards per attempt (34th of 38)
  • 74.0 passer rating (26th of 38)
  • Jets lose 31-12

Rookie Darnold was extremely lucky to escape Duval County with zero interceptions. He had one pick called back due to a penalty and tossed a couple more brutal should-be picks that were dropped.

29. 2019 Week 1 vs. Buffalo Bills (Grade: 29.0)

  • Stats: 28/41 (68.3%), 175 yards, 1 touchdown, 0 interceptions, 4 sacks for 20 yards, 1 rush for 0 yards, 1 fumble (0 lost)
  • 4.3 yards per attempt (37th of 38)
  • 84.9 passer rating (18th of 38)
  • Jets lose 17-16
  • Complete breakdown

Darnold was clearly hampered by the effects of his bout with mononucleosis in this game. He had no confidence to push the ball downfield and played a massively conservative game, leading to a ghastly mark of 4.3 yards per attempt that stands as the second-worst of his career.

28. 2019 Week 17 at Buffalo Bills (Grade: 31.6)

  • Stats: 23/36 (63.9%), 199 yards, 1 touchdown, 1 interception, 2 sacks for 14 yards, 3 rushes for -2 yards, 1 fumble (0 lost)
  • 5.5 yards per attempt (26th of 38)
  • 76.0 passer rating (21st of 38)
  • Jets win 13-6
  • Complete breakdown

Facing a Bills team that was resting its starters after locking up a playoff spot, Darnold had a golden opportunity to head into the offseason with a confidence-inspiring game, but he failed to beat up on Buffalo’s second-team defense.

Darnold made a handful of flashy plays, but he also threw a very bad scrambling interception and had another pick taken off the board due to a penalty. He also made a litany of field-reading and processing mistakes.

27. 2018 Week 8 at Chicago Bears (Grade: 32.8)

  • Stats: 14/29 (48.3%), 153 yards, 1 touchdown, 0 interceptions, 1 sack for 3 yards, 5 rushes for 22 yards, 1 fumble (0 lost)
  • 5.3 yards per attempt (30th of 38)
  • 75.8 passer rating (22nd of 38)
  • Jets lose 24-10

This was a pretty excusable game. A young Darnold hit the road against an elite Bears defense with a wide receiver room that was led by Jermaine Kearse, Andre Roberts, Rishard Matthews, Deontay Burnett, and Charone Peake. Nothing good was going to come of this.

Darnold held up fairly well given the circumstances, avoiding any baffling mistakes and making a handful of nice throws against strong coverage. He simply could not generate any sort of consistency, making minor mistakes on a constant basis. Most commonly, Darnold would have less-than-ideal placement against very tight coverage or fail to choose the best option from an unappealing bunch.

Without a doubt, Darnold gets a pass for this one.

26. 2020 Week 16 vs. Cleveland Browns (Grade: 33.9)

  • Stats: 16/32 (50.0%), 175 yards, 2 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, 2 sacks for 16 yards, 7 rushes for 20 yards
  • 5.5 yards per attempt (28th of 38)
  • 87.4 passer rating (14th of 38)
  • Jets win 23-16
  • Complete breakdown

A highly overrated Darnold performance. Many heralded this game as the signal of a late-season Darnold turnaround, but in actuality, he was no better than he had generally been throughout the season to that point.

The first thing that needs to be addressed is the interception column. Posting a zero in this section is what makes the game look good, but Darnold actually threw two passes that hit a Cleveland defender on the hands and were dropped.

Darnold had devolved into a checkdown machine by this point of the season, leaving plenty of big plays on the field as he consistently deferred to the safest option even if there was a better option available further down the field. Against the Browns, Darnold went 2 for 12 on passes that traveled over 10 yards downfield. He completed just two passes that were caught beyond the first down marker.

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25. 2020 Week 14 at Seattle Seahawks (Grade: 34.5)

  • Stats: 14/26 (53.9%), 132 yards, 0 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, 3 sacks for 16 yards, 1 rush for 3 yards
  • 5.1 yards per attempt (32nd of 38)
  • 68.1 passer rating (31st of 38)
  • Jets lose 40-3
  • Complete breakdown

Darnold had two blatant dropped interceptions in this one. He hit Jamal Adams on the chest for what should have been one of the ugliest pick-sixes of the season, but as we know, Adams has stone hands. Later, Darnold hit cornerback Ugo Amadi right on the hands as he foolishly tried to force the ball to Crowder on a slant. That one also had a good chance of being returned for a touchdown if caught.

Darnold made a few solid throws early in this game and wasn’t all that terrible overall, but he was lucky to leave the Pacific Northwest without two more pick-sixes on his lowlight reel.

24. 2019 Week 14 vs. Miami Dolphins (Grade: 36.0)

  • Stats: 20/36 (55.6%), 270 yards, 2 touchdowns, 1 interception, 1 sack for 8 yards, 3 rushes for 3 yards, 1 fumble (0 lost)
  • 7.5 yards per attempt (12th of 38)
  • 86.6 passer rating (15th of 38)
  • Jets win 22-21
  • Complete breakdown

A tale of two halves. I scored Darnold with a 67.3 grade in the first half, but he dipped to a 25.5 in the second.

In the first half, Darnold was dialed-in, delivering a bunch of dimes in the intermediate and deep ranges.

In the second half, Darnold completely lost his downfield vision. Miami adjusted to take away the deep game after Darnold carved them up in the first half, but Darnold didn’t react accordingly. He continued to attack, firing a ton of ill-advised throws that could have been picked off (one of them was). Gase can’t really be blamed here, as there were a lot of plays in which a wide-open checkdown was available for Darnold underneath, but Darnold continuously took risky chances instead of accepting the free yardage available to him near the line of scrimmage.

This is the opposite type of quarterback that Darnold was by the end of the 2020 season.

23. 2020 Week 13 vs. Las Vegas Raiders (Grade: 36.3)

  • Stats: 14/23 (60.9%), 186 yards, 2 touchdowns, 1 interception, 3 sacks for 16 yards, 3 rushes for 26 yards and 1 touchdown, 2 fumbles (2 lost)
  • 8.1 yards per attempt (9th of 38)
  • 97.4 passer rating (11th of 38)
  • Jets lose 31-28
  • Complete breakdown

Darnold put up efficient numbers in this game, but they came on a low volume and in largely favorable situations as he was supported by a fantastic rushing attack (178 yards for Ty Johnson and Josh Adams). He also lost two fumbles, and the one interception that he threw was extremely bad as he forced to the ball to a tightly-covered Perriman and made matters worse with poor placement toward the leverage of the defender.

Despite the decent Y/A average, Darnold didn’t really earn it. A lot of his yardage came after the catch on very simple throws. He made only one throw that I saw as elite and hardly pushed the ball downfield. Overall, his accuracy can best be described as slightly below-average.

This was a fine game by Darnold. The two fumbles were not really his fault and he did do a nice job of managing the offense for a most part. However, he still did more bad than good when you consider the help he received from the run game and after-the-catch production.

22. 2020 Week 7 vs. Buffalo Bills (Grade: 36.5)

  • Stats: 12/23 (52.2%), 120 yards, 0 touchdowns, 2 interceptions, 6 sacks for 29 yards, 0 rushes
  • 5.2 yards per attempt (31st of 38)
  • 31.1 passer rating (37th of 38)
  • Jets lose 18-10
  • Complete breakdown

Here’s a game where Darnold was not good, but not quite as bad as his stats suggest. Passer rating says that this was Darnold’s second-worst game, but I can’t agree with that. He made a solid number of good throws even if huge yardage wasn’t there to show for it, including a dime to Braxton Berrios that ranks among the best throws of his career. It also should be noted that his second interception was tipped at the line and thus not his fault.

Still, Darnold struggled in this one.

21. 2018 Week 7 vs. Minnesota Vikings (Grade: 38.5)

  • Stats: 17/42 (40.5%), 1 touchdown, 3 interceptions, 3 sacks for 14 yards, 6 rushes for 18 yards and 1 touchdown, 2 fumbles (1 lost)
  • 4.9 yards per attempt (35th of 38)
  • 34.4 passer rating (35th of 38)
  • Jets lose 37-17

Another game where Darnold was not as terrible as his stats suggest. First off, one of his interceptions was a good throw to Charone Peake that bounced off Peake’s chest and into the defense’s hands. In addition, Darnold had a handful of elite throws in this one, completing some dimes into tight windows.

Again, Darnold still wasn’t good even if he was much better than his numbers say. His accuracy was poor on a chilly, windy day (46 degrees with 16mph winds) that may have presented Darnold with the worst weather conditions he had faced in his entire life to that point.

20. 2018 Week 2 vs. Miami Dolphins (Grade: 39.8)

  • Stats: 25/41 (61.0%), 334 yards, 1 touchdown, 2 interceptions, 3 sacks for 14 yards, 2 rushes for 1 yard, 1 fumble (0 lost)
  • 8.2 yards per attempt (8th of 38)
  • 74.6 passer rating (24th of 38)
  • Jets lose 20-12

Darnold dug the Jets into a deep hole with an awful first half, throwing one of his worst career interceptions with a rookie field-reading mistake and blowing an end-of-half scoring opportunity. However, he played very well in the second half, doing enough to pull the Jets back into the lead if Chris Herndon and Terrelle Pryor caught a pair of outstanding throws that hit them on the hands.

I scored Darnold with a 19.3 grade in the first half and a 61.3 in the second.

19. 2019 Week 9 at Miami Dolphins (Grade: 40.8)

  • Stats: 27/39 (69.2%), 260 yards, 1 touchdown, 1 interception, 3 sacks for 22 yards, 2 rushes for 1 yard
  • 6.7 yards per attempt (19th of 38)
  • 85.4 passer rating (16th of 38)
  • Jets lose 26-18
  • Complete breakdown

This was a very ho-hum outing. Darnold threw maybe the worst interception of his career near the end of the first half, lobbing a grenade into heavy traffic on a broken play, but other than that, he didn’t do much of note on either the positive or negative side.

18. 2020 Week 17 at New England Patriots (Grade: 41.1)

  • Stats: 23/34 (67.7%), 266 yards, 1 touchdown, 2 interceptions, 3 sacks for 27 yards, 1 rush for 3 yards
  • 7.8 yards per attempt (10th of 38)
  • 76.3 passer rating (20th of 38)
  • Jets lose 28-14
  • Complete breakdown

Darnold’s possible last game as a Jet as a boom-or-bust one. He had a few eye-popping throws, but his two interceptions were – like many of his picks – pretty much inexcusable. His fourth-quarter pick in the end zone was particularly ugly.

17. 2019 Week 8 at Jacksonville Jaguars (Grade: 43.6)

  • Stats: 21/30 (70.0%), 218 yards, 2 touchdowns, 3 interceptions, 8 sacks for 51 yards, 1 rush for -1 yards, 1 fumble (0 lost)
  • 7.3 yards per attempt (14th of 38)
  • 73.3 passer rating (27th of 38)
  • Jets lose 29-15
  • Complete breakdown

The offensive line was truly awful in this game. That eight-sack total is legitimate – Darnold could hardly be blamed on most of them.

Darnold got off to a tremendous start and was mostly consistent throughout the game, but it’s the big plays that made the difference here. Darnold only had one truly outstanding throw, but he had a bunch of ugly negative plays. His three interceptions were all bad and came at crucial intervals of the game, and he also had a fumble on a play where he could’ve gotten the ball out – luckily it went out of bounds.

Give Darnold credit for his consistency in this one. It stands as one of his steadiest career performances. However, the weight of his worst plays overshadowed the weight of his best plays.

With all of Darnold’s subpar performances out of the way, let’s turn up the dial on the positivity and dive into his 16 career games in which I graded him at an above-average level. It’s time to analyze the games in which Darnold looked like a potential stud.

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Michael Nania is one of the best analytical New York Jets minds in the world, combining his statistical expertise with game film to add proper context to the data. Nania scrapes every corner, ensuring you know all there is to know about everyone from the QB to the long snapper. Nania's Numbers, Nania's QB Grades, and Nania's All-22 give fans a deeper and more well-rounded dive into the Jets than anyone else can offer. Email: michael.nania[at] - Twitter: @Michael_Nania
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2 years ago

Michael, this is latest in an amazing run of analytic pieces you’ve produced lately. How you keep coming up with new angles from which to analyze things is as impressive as your analytic skills. This particular piece must have taken a while to produce. Thank you.