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NFL Draft

Are Sam Darnold’s Problems Solvable?

  • The Draft Network
  • September 11, 2020
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When Sam Darnold declared, I viewed him as the fourth-best quarterback prospect in the class, behind Josh Rosen (egads!), Lamar Jackson (okay, good), and Baker Mayfield (still feel okay). This was about as low on Darnold as it got—he wasn’t a first-round grade for me—as Darnold was a hotly-debated player who many contended would get better with NFL coaching.

It is debatable whether or not Darnold has gotten NFL coaching in the NFL, which is the shield behind which Darnold’s remaining supporters hide, just as Rosen’s remaining supports cite the number of offensive coordinators under which he’s played and the lack of opportunity he’s gotten behind a quality offensive line. There are always reasons for players to be unsuccessful, just as there is always some agency belonging to the player when he does succeed. The converse, however, also holds: there is fault that belongs to the player when he is unsuccessful, and there are always circumstances that can benefit a player.

It may not be possible to divorce Darnold’s development from its context, but we can place him relative to what he was at USC and compare the two players, to see in what ways—if any—he has developed. I charted Darnold’s final season from USC before the 2018 draft, and then charted his 2019 season for the 2020 NFL installment of Contextualized Quarterbacking, my premium quarterback data available only with a TDN Premium subscription. Here are the two players I saw.

USC

At USC, Darnold’s best scores were his accuracy in the quick game and his willingness to push the ball downfield.

Darnold threw more catchable balls in the short area of the field (0-9 yards) than any other significant 2018 quarterback prospect besides Baker Mayfield, and his ball placement was even better than Mayfield’s when adjusting for defenders. That strength in the quick game made Darnold a prolific RPO passer out of the gun for the Trojans, and his ability to throw from odd body and arm angles only sharpened his game when throwing from the mesh point.

Only Titans backup Logan Woodside was a more aggressive deep ball (20-plus yards) thrower than Darnold in the 2018 class, as more than 21% of Darnold’s attempts were in the deep area of the field. This was a two-fold effect for Darnold, as he was both willing and able to throw to deep threats Michael Pittman Jr. and Tyler Vaughns within structure, but also was an aggressive passer downfield when working scramble drills. Darnold had 19% of his passing attempts come outside of the pocket in college, which was more than Jackson (12%) and equal with Mayfield, and was often looking to push the ball in those contexts.

Darnold’s aggressive nature as a passer did not lend itself to progressions, however. Darnold was one of the most reliant first-read quarterbacks coming out of USC, with only 13% of his passing attempts going beyond his first read. Often, when Darnold got off of his first read, the subsequent play would end in a sack, a scramble, or a throwaway. Darnold’s dedication to his first read was not only a testimony to his arm talent but also a testimony to his hesitancy reading defensive leverage, as he often stuck to the plan in situations when it would have been more prudent to roll off his initial look and find a checkdown.

And of course, when Darnold did get off of his first read, the issue was always with his feet—an issue that even plagued him on his first read. With such a delightful arm, Darnold was often negligent with his throwing base as a Trojan, aligning wide of his targets and opening his hips to his trajectory, demanding that his arm strength generate all of his velocity on deep bombs or intermediate throws with zip. If tasked with resetting his throwing base to a new area of the field or to a closing pocket, the problem only got worse: Darnold had one of the worst accuracy scores from an adjusted platform in the entire class. 

In all, there was too much talent to ignore Darnold’s ceiling as a potential starting quarterback, and too much rawness to ignore the road ahead with Darnold. A team that drafted Darnold would need a good plan for quarterback development. The Jets did not have one.

New York Jets

The Jets thought they had a plan when they hired quarterback guru Adam Gase, who stayed out of Peyton Manning’s way and has done absolutely nothing else to prove his status as a quarterback guru. Gase was both responsible for designing an offense that played to Darnold’s strengths and a program through the offseason to improve on his weaknesses. Darnold was so good in the quick game that a dink-and-dunk offense would be tenable under him in the short-term, but to fully develop him as a threat, an offense that scripted deep vertical shots was also necessary.

Ideally, that offense would also keep Darnold to half-field reads, where defensive leverage would be more predictable, and critically, he could keep his throwing base aligned and work deep to shallow in his progression. That’s an area in which Gase has, to his credit, been strong. As Steven Ruiz of For The Win detailed, Gase often brings Darnold’s checkdowns into his field of vision from across the formation, ensuring that Darnold doesn’t have to hitch into a new angle if he wants to dump the ball off.

And Darnold’s work from adjusted platforms has actually improved across his time in New York. He’s middling among charted quarterbacks in accuracy when throwing from an affected base and is actually top 10 in ball placement adjusted for defenders. The problem hasn’t necessarily been solved, though—it’s just begun leaking into a new area of his game.

Darnold has become so gunshy against pressure that his poor footwork is now working even into clean throwing platforms, where he has room to step up and throw. Darnold got the worst ball placement score among 22 charted quarterbacks when throwing from a clean platform last year despite throwing generally catchable footballs, indicating that he’s failing to slot the ball relative to coverage or maximize YAC. A passer without pinpoint accuracy begins to lose his danger as a dink-and-dunk distributor, which is exactly what happened to Darnold last year: he was heavily reliant on the short pass (51.93% of all attempts) but was average in ball placement; on one-step drops and on RPOs, he was bottom five in the rate of catchable passes. 

His accuracy issues are getting worse as time goes on, not better—and that’s a direct consequence of the pressure he’s experienced and his lack of scripted response to it. This is where coaching and development should be condemned. Darnold was pressured on more than 30% of his chartable passes last year—that’s the eighth-highest number in my sample—and only Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges had worse ball placement against the rush. Darnold famously saw ghosts against the New England Patriots defense on Monday Night Football last year—it wasn’t them. Darnold invites pressure, overreacts to pressure, and reacts to non-existent pressure. As far as pocket management goes, he’s one of the worst in the league.

Where was this at USC? It wasn’t as bad. Darnold was a below-average passer against pressure who got pressured a decent bit, but with such a quick-game offense and glut of talent, Darnold was not penalized for hammering his first read, and could just zip the ball out of the pocket before blitzes or pressure games materialized. In an uninspired West Coast cookie cutter offense with a poor supporting cast, Darnold’s first read is harder to access, and he’s more prone to chucking up early, downfield prayers to vertical threats in a facsimile of his old, quick-game offense. When he tries to read a spacing concept, he’s often right, but not remarkably accurate, and his internal clock screams after a mere two seconds.

What Can Be Solved?

Folks like to say that there are things you can and can’t teach young passers, but that’s not an easy science to begin with, and it’s also tough to categorize Darnold as a young passer. He had two years of college experience and now two full seasons as a starter in the league. While he has endured a questionable quality of coaching at both levels, he has taken plenty of snaps—not only to learn on the fly, but to further ingrain bad habits still not coached out of him. Yes, he’s 23 years old, but his arm and his mind are experienced. He should be better now than he is.

So what can be solved? Unscripting poor responses to pressure and writing new ones is a tricky sensation. Darnold would benefit from offensive styles that negate pressure by either working a quicker underneath game (think Pat Shurmur’s offense for Daniel Jones last year) or heavier protection schemes with play-action (think Kyle Shanahan’s offense for Jimmy Garoppolo). Both of those quarterbacks are more limited passers than Darnold, but both are in better situations and are not only experiencing offensive success, but also are more likely to grow in a supportive and rewarding environment. 

For as long as Gase is the head coach in New York, there’s little reason to expect a supporting and rewarding offensive environment for Sam Darnold. The question now is if the Jets have burned the candle for too long. If they end up in a position to take a new quarterback in the 2021 draft, how confidently can they say “No, Darnold has shown enough that he’s our guy”? Much of what you could hang your hat on with Darnold has remained, but last season he became progressively more panicky. He’s losing trust in his ability to make every throw and believes in his offense even less. As all players would in his shoes, he’s starting to spiral.

If the Jets are serious about Darnold long-term, they’ll fire Gase as soon as possible and give offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains the reins over the offense—not because he’s done anything to deserve them, but because a new idea can always jar something loose. If Darnold doesn’t improve, they must pour all of their energy—in their coaching hire, draft acquisitions, and free agents—into improving Darnold’s protection and process, to give him cleaner pockets from which to work and easier reads to hit earlier in the down. They may never get the same gamesman outside of the pocket and late in the down as Darnold once looked like he could become, but there is still more than enough arm talent here to put together an NFL-caliber offense. 

Even though that path exists, this season will likely be no better for Darnold than 2019 was, and new general manager Joe Douglas will be forced into a tough decision. Darnold truthers are facing an uphill climb for 2020 but may find themselves relieved if he ends up on a new team, with a new coaching staff, sometime in the near future.

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