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Zach Wilson vs. Sam Darnold: NY Jets fans have nothing to proclaim … yet

Zach Wilson, Sam Darnold, Joe Douglas
Zach Wilson, Sam Darnold, Joe Douglas, Jet X Graphic, Getty Images

New York Jets fans still cannot efficiently gauge the Zach Wilson vs. Sam Darnold decision.

Well, well, well … my, oh my … have the noisy suddenly become silent.

After a raucous 3-0 start to the 2021 season, Sam Darnold‘s Carolina Panthers have crashed down to Earth. Now a 3-3 ball club, even the feverish of Darnold backers have been forced to execute their best “Homer Simpson fading into the green bush” impression.

ESPN’s Dan Orlovsky currently represents the leader in the clubhouse—if we immediately renamed the Homer Simpson-located bright-green bush to “clubhouse.”

“Really weird, I was told Sam Darnold sucked,” Orlovsky tweeted after the Panthers’ 26-7 Week 2 beatdown of the New Orleans Saints.

After additional tweets singing the new Carolina quarterback’s praises, combined with TV spots confirming Darnold’s starting quarterback (if not near-elite) status, the amount of weight on the bandwagon forced the requirement of industrialized-sized tires. (And don’t be confused: Orlovsky, an excellent football mind whose former profession oftentimes oozes illogical confidence in every NFL quarterback, wasn’t the only one.)

Since the 3-0 start … crickets. Crickets, ladies and gentlemen.

Darnold’s thrown six interceptions in the last three games, all Carolina losses. His 7-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio doesn’t exactly scream stud status. His five total fumbles (two lost) bring his interception-plus-fumble number to 12 in just six games.

In fact, only three quarterbacks have fumbled more than Darnold, and the same number of signal-callers have thrown more interceptions this season.

This sudden turn of events shouldn’t really surprise anybody. After all, new-look teams, units, duos and/or schemes often get a jump on the rest of the league.

For one, there’s no tape. New York Jets fans certainly remember the start of the 2009 season. Rex Ryan’s elaborate (and extremely fresh) pressure designs caught the entire league off guard. Ryan’s first Jets team got off to a hot 3-0 start only to soon crumble shortly thereafter, losing six of the next seven.

Although Darnold has already put up three years’ worth of film, he, Joe Brady and Matt Rhule in concert represented something new. They barely knocked off the Jets (per score, not actual play), steamrolled a confused Saints squad that had eight coaches miss the game due to COVID-19 protocols, and barely beat a terrible Houston Texans team on Thursday Night Football.

Why were snap judgments offered so vigorously after a mere couple of weeks? Even the smart onlookers who fully understood these fortunate Carolina circumstances, coupled with the league’s “Not For Long” history (thanks, Jerry Glanville), should have remained beyond the duty to serve in a sensical fashion.

It was not to be.

ESPN’s Field Yates was another to add weight to the bandwagon (a.k.a. the House of Cards on Wheels) so early.

Again, why?

Other than today’s emotionally-driven quantity over quality digital sports media world we now obviously live in—which accounts for the media pundits in question—human nature has a lot to do with it.

Fans simply want to be right.

Whether it’s fantasy football or EA Sports’ Madden franchise mode, playing general manager is all the rage. Making the decision en route to boasting about it on a particular social media platform is what garners attention these days. (I mean jeez, 12-year-old kids spouting nonsense on TikTok are even making the viral rounds; but that’s an entirely different matter for another day.)

What’s often lost in the shuffle is that garnering the right attention is sometimes best.

Try not to engage in this silly game. Or, at least pretend to understand that it’s going to take some time before the world knows whether or not Joe Douglas made the correct call this past offseason.

Sam Darnold continues to make the same mistakes

In full transparency, I rode the Zach Wilson bandwagon from December 2020 or January 2021 onward. It simply made sense to trade Darnold and to roll with the cheaper, younger option that had a better chance of turning into an elite player.

Douglas’s goal is to find the next superstar quarterback, and the odds that guy comes in the form of Wilson’s skill set (without any NFL tape), as opposed to Darnold’s three years of film, were much better.

In spite of any past proclamation, the noble move at this very moment is the wait-and-see approach. There’s simply too much season ahead to puff out chests and play the attention game.

Besides, time is needed for the routine to settle back into the routine. For example, Darnold put forth one of his classic unforced errors on the first play of the game in Week 6.

On a three-man route via a play-action max-protect design, with the Minnesota Vikings rushing four and playing either Cover 1 or Cover 3 on the back-end (pre-snap single-high look), Darnold threw a pick after chaotically scrambling.

Where have Jets fans seen this before?

Although the default reaction is to blame the previous regime fully, usually—and this doesn’t take an Elon Musk independent contract to figure out—more than one person is responsible for an 0-13 team’s ills.

This isn’t to say Darnold can’t win the No. 14 vs. No. 2 debate in the end, or that he can’t carve out a nice NFL career. The kid absolutely can, as I’ve repeated time and again (i.e. Jared Goff, perhaps even Derek Carr).

The more important point boils down to new mantras, a brand-spanking-new culture. Rushing to judgment is what this new Jets regime is never interested in undertaking—something that should remain fantastic news in Jets land.

Take note of Robby Anderson‘s recent stock as well. Since the start of the 2020 season, Douglas has been maligned with “look at Robby Anderson go” pieces and hot takes ready to burn a hole in Florham Park’s atmosphere. Now, similar to the Darnold turnaround, the crickets seem to be exponentially multiplying.

With just 190 yards and two touchdowns on 15 receptions, Anderson’s production isn’t that regretful at the moment. Neither are his league-leading six drops.

In fairness, Darnold dealt with a major case of the drops this past weekend; both Anderson and D.J. Moore dropped several gimmie balls. But despite his team’s league-leading 17 drops and his excellent game-tying drive that forced overtime, Sam Darnold is simply nowhere near the level that appropriately lines up with “I told you so” status.

New York Jets, Jets X-Factor

Zach Wilson’s overthinking is a cause for serious concern

One of the three quarterbacks with more interceptions than Darnold’s seven is No. 2 in Gotham Green. The BYU product’s league-leading nine picks (with the bye week to boot) aren’t concerning by way of rookie quarterback status. Instead, Wilson’s horrid play cannot be blamed on the run-of-the-mill rookie quarterback ills.

What’s currently going on in between the ears is what’s alarming.

Part of the reason I called for Wilson this past offseason was the idea that he wouldn’t allow himself to fall into the unenviable overthinking state that has plagued so many young quarterbacks—Darnold included.

The kid looked decisive from the jump. Whether it came in the form of rookie minicamp, OTAs, training camp, or even actual preseason games (Green Bay Packers, New York Giants), Wilson’s decisiveness looked miles ahead of the inexperienced competition.

He even looked decisive (when given a chance) in Week 1 against the Panthers.

Then, Bill Belichick came to town. Four interceptions later, Wilson entered a state that has destroyed his mechanics and overall confidence—to a degree that remains somewhat as strong this very day.

Perhaps this can be construed as a positive. Perhaps not.

On one hand, if Wilson’s mind only started to cause trouble in Week 2, this means that we’re currently not watching the real Zach Wilson. Great, perhaps he can snap out of it at any point.

On the other hand, the idea that he already allowed himself to fall into such a dark place is troubling in itself.

For instance, only an overthinking mind produces so many inexplicable failures when asked to execute the routine. The play-action bubble screen (RPO) that skipped to Jamison Crowder is just one of many lowlights in the past four weeks.

Wilson even admitted that his mind is playing tricks on him, especially as it relates to the routine throws that come off a three-step drop or designed air play.

“Yeah, I would just say overthinking them,” Wilson told the media during the bye week. “I would just say, to an extent, (I’m) aiming the throw rather than just throwing it, as I’ve always done my whole life. (I need to react) to what a defense is giving me and just (throw) it, rather than putting too much thought into it.”

A rookie is a rookie is a rookie. Five games is hardly a legitimate sample size—even if there’s serious cause for concern.

Give it at least one season, then make your move

Hey, there’s nothing wrong in staking a claim in one of the two guys in question, playing general manager along with the big man in the big seat, himself. Just don’t travel past the point where credibility is lost.

An entire initial season is first required before the Wilson vs. Darnold debate reaches its first official checkpoint. The questions will be many, up to and including:

  1. Is Sam Darnold still making the same, silly mistakes he did over his first three professional seasons?
  2. Is Zach Wilson playing with confidence, or is he amazingly still trapped in his own mind?
  3. Have the New York Jets shown legitimate improvement, as good coaching tends to show up via improvement over the course of a full football season?
  4. Are the Carolina Panthers a better football team with Darnold as opposed to Teddy Bridgewater?

Until the NFL season reaches at least December, it’s all noise. Wilson could jump up a particular week that features a down Darnold. The very next week could showcase the latter leading a game-winning drive, while the former experiences more rookie lumps.

Just as it’s still impossible to fully evaluate Joe Douglas’s two rookie draft classes, the Wilson vs. Darnold conversation has yet to grow credible legs.

Support your horse, sure, but keep the realization that Zach Wilson vs. Sam Darnold is an impossible decision to decipher right now firmly entrenched in that football-loving (hopefully anti-Skip Bayless-imitating) mind of yours.

More importantly, understand that this New York Jets regime could not care less to what degree its former players are fetching success—for it matters not in the way their own correct process unfolds. (Generally speaking, Douglas and company would love to see former players enjoy success elsewhere, but the in-house process matters most.)

In a way, those who love playing the general manager game should also keep the regime’s public philosophy in mind. Individuals who loudly play general manager could also assume the benevolent public persona Douglas has appropriately showcased since day No. 1 (i.e. the Jamal Adams situation, the Darnold trade, the Anderson decision, etc.).

Then again, what am I smoking? (The previous question is one that requires neither an answer nor any further in-depth pondering.)

The best part of the fictional general manager role on social media is not having to play nice and not having to answer to the mob—thus, not having to backpedal into the green bush aptly named “clubhouse.”

Oh well, I guess it’s back to “told you so” and “they should have done this” until the next 180-degree turn occurs—which is surely and immediately around the corner.

Next up: Zach Wilson in New England to take on those Bill Belichick-led Patriots, while Sam Darnold returns to East Rutherford for a date with the horrific-looking New York Giants.

Get ready: “Around the corner” may happen in just four days.

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2 years ago

This is easy to say now, I watch the panthers, yes, Darnold has made his share of mistakes, but like any QB the numbers don’t tell the entire story. Last week they had 8 drops (including 3 from Robby Anderson), he’s also had 2 INTs that went off of WR hands and, that OL down there isn’t going to remind anyone of the Hogs in Washington. A couple of those fumbles were from blown OL assignments. Yet the Panthers do have 3 wins, which is more that the Jets. As for Wilson, he doesn’t do ONE thing better now than he did 5 games ago, and to be honest it’s deeply concerning to me. All of the things we hated from Darnold, happy feet in the pocket, not able to read defenses, throwing late, inaccurate and being careless with the ball….Zach does equally as consistently. Every QB has clunkers (ie: Wilson leads the NFL in INT with 9, Mahomes has 8), throw out a game or two for each of them, that how it works, unless of course ESPNquirer doesn’t like a guy then they just make jokes, and it’s all you see for weeks so people believe it. I think Carolina is going to the playoffs so like it or not that will make Darnold a playoff QB. I could be wrong but let’s have this discussion after the season because right now other than a handful of nice backyard throws Wilson hasn’t shown anything that makes me believe he can improve his shortcomings.

In one of your early podcasts during OTA’s you implored Jets’ fans to be happy. “This time it’s different.” “The ball never hit the ground” but it was on the ground consistently with Darnold and Gase. Well, here we are 5 games in and it’s EXACTLY the same, with the exception being the WR’s and RB’s have more talent now than when Darnold was under center and Gase on the sidelines. It needs to look “different” this week. That’s not saying it has to be a win, or it has to be mistake free, but it HAS TO BE DIFFERENT, if it’s not it should raise serious questions about this QB.

2 years ago
Reply to  Robby Sabo

Yes, your article is mostly about letting it play out, my point is similar, I mean Darnold could win 7 out of the next 10, then things would look different. I agree this is the first time in seems like forever the team is FINALLY in alignment. GM, HC, QB, draft picks and salary cap all now match up. The Idzik/Cags years were a toxic waste dump. I hated Idzik from day one, Cags I liked and supported but he clearly was over his head.

I personally hate the lazy “Same Ol’ Jets” montra, it’s too easy to get behind, we agree there. I do think your podcast about “things are different” was specifically targeted to the QB at least that’s what it sounded like. In that regard I don’t see anything different with Wilson, and I have major concerns that we ever will.

Douglas has done some very good things with the franchise, the fact the OL is just now starting to so some signs of improvement is too slow. Keeping GVR was a flat out mistake, one he should not be making after the first two years watching his QB get smashed. Overall, I think he’s the right guy for the job. I also LOVE Saleh, I believe he’s got a real chance to be a long term solution in a similar way John Harbaugh is for Baltimore.