If Gregg Williams doesn’t call a cover 0 blitz on the final play of the game against the Raiders in Week Thirteen, the New York Jets would have won three games out of their last four.
If the Jets had beaten the Raiders, these three wins would have come against a play-off hopeful (the Raiders), the second-best team in the NFC West (the Rams) and, most recently, the 10 win Cleveland Browns.
While a change at defensive coordinator and an improvement in the quality of play-calling from Adam Gase may be responsible for the Jets recent upturn in form, the role of the quarterback, Sam Darnold, cannot be overlooked.
On paper, it’s an incredibly strange situation. Sam Darnold, the third overall pick in the 2017 draft and once future of the franchise, is now playing on borrowed time. Whether or not the Jets actually obtain Trevor Lawrence in April, something that is looking more and more unlikely with each passing Sunday does not matter. The fact is, the player who was once the future face of the franchise, somebody who was going to lead the Jets into a new era, is probably going to be on a new team come August.
As strange as it may be, this situation did not occur overnight. Since his rookie season, the New York Jets organisation has slowly, but surely, tried to dismantle Sam Darnold piece by piece. At this point, some analysts and football fans are wondering if Darnold will ever be considered a starting quarterback again.
So, it’s clear that Darnold has been through a lot with the Jets. Particularly this season under Gase. However, Darnold has shown flashes during his time with the Jets and was selected third overall for a reason. Thus, is Sam Darnold broken? And could he be a franchise quarterback with a different team in a different city?
In the current day NFL, there is a problem of mythologising quarterbacks. Players such as Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson are often credited with an unrealistic ability to control everything around them. That no matter what situation they are in, they will overcome any obstacles they face.
While this may hold some credence whenever one of Rodgers, Mahomes or Wilson does something extraordinary, at the end of the day the position of quarterback is just like any other. It is wholly dependent on the other ten players on the field with them. No talented quarterback has ever achieved anything without a talented team around them.
So, although it may seem cliched and tired at this point, it truly is important to measure the quality of receivers, running backs, tight ends and offensive line when assessing a quarterback.
Against the Vegas Raiders, Darnold, for possibly the first time this season, had some semblance of a receiver corps.
Rookie wideout Denzel Mims, veterans Breshad Perriman and Jamison Crowder, as well as Braxton Berrios, have all been available for Darnold since Week Thirteen. Since then, Darnold has boasted the best completion percentage of the season (70.97 against the Rams), 700 yards throwing and a 5:1 TD: INT ratio. Sidenote: Darnold hasn’t turned the ball over in the last three games.
While this group of pass-catchers is hardly the greatest show on turf, they are legitimate starting NFL calibre wide receivers.
Statistically, Darnold hasn’t been setting the world on fire. In each of the Jets last three wins, Darnold has thrown for less than 250 yards. Moreover, Darnold ranks either last or close to last in each of the base stats by which we measure quarterbacks.
Darnold ranks dead last out of quarterbacks with a minimum number of 300 attempts in yards per attempt (5.9), second last in passing yards (1,912) and touchdowns (8) and third from last in completion percentage (58.8).
On paper, Darnold is one of the worst quarterbacks in the league. However, you have to take into consideration the circumstances in which Darnold found himself this year. The former USC Trojan was playing on arguably the worst roster in the NFL, under the worst head coach in the NFL.
The biggest reason why Darnold can go on and fulfil his potential someplace else is that fundamentally, Darnold is still a starting calibre NFL quarterback.
Watching the tape, despite being under pressure most of the time, Darnold has recently shown the hallmarks of a franchise quarterback. He looks calm and reassured at the line of scrimmage and when the ball is snapped, Darnold is working through his progressions and more often than not, finds the right read in a less than stellar offence.
Take this play against the Raiders for example. Vegas calls a cornerback blitz to dial up the pressure on Darnold. After the snap, the Raiders cover the pick/rub route at the left of the screen. You can see Darnold’s head move as he works through his progressions.
Darnold has the poise to come off his first read, which is covered, and hit Mims over the middle while under pressure.
One of the biggest takeaways from watching Darnold is that despite being put through hell with the Jets, he still looks like a pro-ready quarterback.
Contrast Darnold to Carson Wentz who spends the majority of his snaps double-clutching the football, bailing on his progressions and running into the backs of his own offensive linemen.
Without sounding cliched, Sam Darnold is a sneakily good scrambler. Although he can sometimes hold onto the football for a fraction of a second too long, Darnold has surprisingly good instincts when it comes to scramble drills.
The two most impressive examples of Darnold escaping the pocket came in Week Fifteen against the Rams and Week Sixteen against the Browns.
Against the Rams, Darnold had the tough task of facing the best defensive player in football, Aaron Donald. In this clip, Donald brushes aside the Jets right guard with ease before Darnold shows impressive pocket presence and evades the former DPOY.
Even more impressive, Darnold shows real composure by floating the ball over the oncoming defenders’ head for a big gain.
Against the Browns, Darnold shows off his toughness with this huge truck against former Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith.
Although it may sound cliched, these type of plays really do have an impact on your teammates and demonstrate your willingness to win.
It’s nice to know that Darnold still has a semblance of his fundamentals as well as an extra layer on top of that of athleticism.
Ahead of their upcoming Week Seventeen match up against Darnold and the Jets, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick spoke on Sam Darnold.
‘I don’t think there’s any shortage of talent there or playmaking ability… He’s an athletic guy that has great size, big arm, hard to tackle in the pocket, good prospect’.
Despite being imbued in a whirlwind of turmoil this past season, Darnold has shown that he can succeed in the NFL. Now, on the eve of a meeting with the Patriots, Darnold has a chance to show he has moved on from ‘seeing ghosts.’ Even ahead of that, luckily for Darnold, there are two offensive masterminds in Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan on the West Coast who are vying for a fresh face under centre.
If Darnold goes on to succeed in a better situation on another team, then that would not surprise anyone at all.