The youngest quarterback to start an NFL game, Sam Darnold of the New York Jets, has hit his first true speed bump. In a week three loss to the Cleveland Browns, Gang Green's 3rd game in 11 days and one in which they had to squeeze a travel day into a three day week, he struggled.
The stat line was ugly, completing under 50% of his passes with two interceptions and just 169 yards. Every story goes beyond the box score, so why exactly did Darnold fall apart in this one? What does he need to improve on with ten days to prepare for Jacksonville?
Let's take a look.
Keep something in mind when watching Darnold: he's two years younger than Baker Mayfield, who looked like the star we expect him to be on Thursday night.
The difference of comfort between the two was drastic, as the third overall pick never got in rhythm. A big part of that was his lack of timing, both on scripted designs and plays where he had multiple options to throw to.
Below is the first play of the game, a scripted cross field throw that gets blockers out in front of rookie tight end Chris Herndon, who was a relatively effective player after the catch in college:
The blockers do their jobs by getting out in front quickly and clearing two paths: one inside and one along the sideline. If you click on the GIF at the point where I highlight Herndon, you can see the design worked.
The problem? Sam Darnold drifts a bit too far, fades a bit as he throws and is at least a second to late getting the ball out. This not only allowed a defender to diagnose where the ball was going, but the time to get to Herndon before he can make a move after the catch.
A wasted opportunity on an opening play that initially had promise.
Let's review another one, this time Darnold has multiple options:
First, the lone wide out is wide open from the snap. The rookie quarterback needs to take the free yards, especially to a target like Anderson that needs to be involved more.
Darnold is gun-shy here, waiting for the two tight ends over the middle to break free. Tomlinson does not, while Herndon does (an extremely predictable outcome if you watched either play in college). The ball is forced to Tomlinson and should have been picked off, but it's dropped by the defender.
This is an example of Darnold waiting to see someone open, rather than firing the ball out to throw them open. Unfortunately that didn't happen and leads to a forced throw to the unlikeliest of targets.
Now, it's not all gloom and doom here. On the next example Darnold fires to Kearse before he fully breaks on the out route to the sideline:
These are the instances where you realize it's not physical limitations holding back Darnold, just mental consistency and the battle against the fear of making a mistake.
Against Detroit, the defense and special teams aided in scoring. After an opening play interception, he settled in and challenged the defense. The fear was behind him. Even against Miami he pushed the ball down the field, but his teammates failed him a few times.
This game was different. Was it the short week with essentially zero preparation time? On the road against what's a not only talented, but well coached Gregg Williams defense? Is it on the coaching staff for coming in with a conservative plan that protected him right away?
It's fair to say all factors involved share the blame. When they needed him to drive down the field in the final minutes, he got halfway before making a frantic, no-look style throw into double coverage:
The check down to Bilal Powell was there. Even if he wanted to keep feeding Kearse, the ball was late and errant. These are the mental aspects of the game Darnold will grow with playing at such a young stage.
Dividing up when to take a safe outlet or when to take chances can separate the bad, average and the great. For a 21-year-old, that's okay.
Starting Sam Darnold was the right call this year. It's going to be a full season of highs and lows, growing pains but most importantly development. Evolving into the franchise quarterback the Jets need is the goal, but with that comes a long process ahead.