Which quarterback put forth a better performance during their New York Jets career: Geno Smith or Sam Darnold?
During a recent interview with New York Daily News beat reporter DJ Bien-Aime, the boys on the Broadway Jets podcast brought up a debate that had New York Jets Twitter talking: did Sam Darnold or Geno Smith have the better Jets career?
Based on the conversations that occurred on the subject across the internet, there was no clear winner in the battle. Darnold took a slim victory with 53% of the votes in this poll, but both quarterbacks had a similarly large share of supporters.
I decided to hit the numbers to answer the question. Let’s compare Darnold and Smith’s production across the board to figure out who truly was the better quarterback during their time in Florham Park.
The first order of business is comparing the level of support that both quarterbacks received.
Both quarterbacks were poorly supported, with the Jets ranking bottom-12 in the majority of categories throughout the tenures of Smith and Darnold.
There is one category where Smith takes a major edge, and that’s pass protection. Smith was protected decently throughout his Jets tenure, as New York ranked 18th in Pro Football Focus’s pass blocking grade in 2013 and then leaped up to 12th in 2014. Darnold dealt with horrid protection throughout the entirety of his three-year Jets career.
Beyond pass protection, the support around both quarterbacks was poor across the board. Neither quarterback was presented with favorable field position, a strong run game, or a high-quality group of pass-catchers to work with.
While the Jets ranked top-10 in rushing yards in both of Smith’s two seasons as a starter, the rushing attack wasn’t actually as effective as the yardage total suggests, considering that the Jets ranked 27th in rushing offense DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) in 2013 and 19th in 2014.
DVOA accounts for factors such as down, distance, time, score, and opponent quality to give a more accurate measure of impact than raw box score stats could. It also correctly counts any rushing production accumulated by quarterbacks on scrambles as passing-game production, which is key here. Smith’s scrambling played a big role in the Jets’ strong rushing numbers from 2013-14, but those scrambles actually happened on passing dropbacks, not rushing plays, so they made the Jets’ run game look better than it really was.
Altogether, the takeaway here is that both quarterbacks were in a bad situation, but Smith’s was slightly more favorable thanks to the fact that he had a decent pass-protecting offensive line.
Box score stats
Now, let’s dig into some of the two quarterbacks’ standard box score stats. For the purpose of this study, we’ll stick to Smith’s two seasons as a starter from 2013-14 and ignore his sparse appearances from 2015-16.
Well, there’s certainly a lot of red there.
Darnold and Smith both ranked bottom-10 out of 32 qualifiers in all seven of the standard statistics laid out above. The two best rankings belong to Smith, who ranked 23rd with 6.9 yards per attempt and 25th with a .379 win percentage. Darnold ranked bottom-six in every category.
While Darnold outperformed Smith in a handful of these categories, the standards for NFL quarterbacks have risen rather significantly since Smith was a Jet, so the jump in league-average quarterbacking quality eliminates Darnold’s edge over Smith in most of the above categories.
For instance, the league-average passer rating in 2013 was 86.0, then an all-time high. By 2020, that mark had shot up to another new all-time high of 93.6 (a new record has been set in 10 of the last 13 seasons). That 7.6-point leap is very close to the 7.1-point difference between Smith and Darnold’s passer ratings, which essentially tells us that the two players performed almost identically in the category when compared to the league average.
The average touchdown-to-interception ratio from 2013-14 was 1.7-to-1. From 2018-20, it was 2.1-to-1. That gap of 0.4 nearly makes up the difference between Smith’s 0.7 ratio and Darnold’s 1.2 ratio.
Smith has a solid edge in terms of yards per pass attempt. He passed for 6.88 yards per attempt from 2013-14, a minus-0.28 margin versus the NFL average of 7.16 over that span. Darnold passed for 6.64 yards per attempt from 2018-20, a larger margin of minus-0.64 versus the league average of 7.28 over that span.
Here are how Darnold and Smith compare in four different advanced metrics: ESPN’s QBR (total quarterback rating), DVOA, EPA per play (estimated points added), and overall Pro Football Focus grade. I decided to compare the five individual campaigns between the two quarterbacks.
Once again, there isn’t much to say besides the fact that both quarterbacks were similarly terrible throughout their careers.
A couple of themes do emerge here. The biggest one is that Darnold’s 2020 season stands out as by far the worst of the five. Considering how bad the other four campaigns were, it says a lot about how truly atrocious he was in the 2020 season.
The second takeaway is that the battle for the best season seems to be between Smith’s 2014 season and Darnold’s 2018 rookie season. Neither year was good, but they seem to each be a tad better than Smith’s 2013 season and Darnold’s 2019 season.
What can you say? Sam Darnold and Geno Smith were both among the worst quarterbacks in the NFL throughout their respective Jets tenures. From a production standpoint, it’s hard to choose a clear winner. Picking out the best quarterback between this duo is like picking the best flavor of poison.
Perhaps Darnold gets the edge considering he had the lesser supporting cast, but he also put forth a 2020 season that was substantially worse than either of Smith’s two seasons, so that muddies up the conversation a bit. After the 2019 season, I personally would have taken Darnold over Smith without much hesitation, but Darnold’s historic struggles in 2020 have led to an immense freefall in his stock.
Take your side and have at it, but this is an argument that cannot be won. There’s only a single truth here: the bar for Zach Wilson to impress in comparison to his predecessors is very, very low.
LISTEN TO THE ARTICLE HERE:
Or, join the only official Jets Discord in order to join a community of like-minded fans.