clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

A look at why Sam Darnold is throwing so many dangerous passes

New York Jets v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images

I came away from Sunday’s game against Jacksonville thinking it was a miracle that Sam Darnold walked away from it without throwing an interception. There were a striking number of high risk throws from the third overall pick.

This isn’t the most shocking thing in the world. Rookies frequently make risky decisions as they adapt from college to the NFL.

What I want to do is take a look at some of the passes Darnold threw that could have been interceptions were it not for luck to see why they happened.

As I reviewed the game, there were four such passes that really stood out to me. Let’s jump in.

Play #1

I think the Jaguars tricked the rookie a bit with their presnap look. On this play Robby Anderson is lined up inside, and A.J. Bouye is lined up directly across from him. Darnold is looking at this.

A corner lined up inside against a receiver is typically a sign of man coverage. The Jaguars certainly would want that matchup.

In reality, the Jaguars had Bouye man to man against Anderson, but they were playing zone everywhere else. This is a complex coverage that I doubt Darnold saw much from Pac 12 defenses. When rookies see a new coverage for the first time, it is a recipe for mistakes.

Darnold has Bilal Powell who is breaking in on a post route. Barry Church, the would be guy covering in Powell in man coverage has outside leverage so he won’t be able to defend this route. Since the Jaguars are in zone, however, you can see how many defenders are in the area making this a very small window.

Darnold also has to deal with a collapsing pocket as Malik Jackson shoves Brian Winters right into Darnold’s face.

This prevents Darnold from being able to step into his pass.

The ball sails and is intercepted by Tayshaun Gibson, but a penalty away from the throw wipes it out.

This play was a combination of things. We had a rookie being fooled by a coverage he had never seen before, which leads a throw into a too tight of a window. We have protection failing, which doesn’t allow the quarterback to step into the throw.

But the pocket collapsing is even more reason for Darnold to not attempt this pass. He might live to see another day with this throw in college, but you can’t be high over the middle in the NFL. Defenses are too fast, and windows close too quickly.

This is the type of thing he’ll need to learn.

Play #2

On this play Darnold has to figure out what look the Jaguars are giving him. It could be man coverage based on the alignment.

Darnold, however, notices that A.J. Bouye, a cornerback is lined up across from Bilal Powell, a running back (orange). Meanwhile, Barry Church, a safety, is across from Andre Roberts, a wide receiver (pink). If the Jaguars were in man, they would surely want safety vs. running back and cornerback vs. wide receiver.

This is a sign Jacksonville is in zone, and their presnap look shows Cover 3.

The Jets have the perfect play to beat this. Robby Anderson on the outside is running a vertical route, which occupies Jalen Ramsey. That leaves nobody to take Jermaine Kearse down the seam. Darnold sees this and is ready to fire.

Once again, however, the pocket collapses. Darnold wants to throw it, but Spencer Long is shoved into his face by Abry Jones, preventing him from being able to step into it.

Darnold then slides to his right and throws it.

By the time Darnold throws it, the window has closed, however, and it turns into a dangerous pass.

Like the last play, the interior offensive line takes some of the blame. Here the line is more of a primary culprit, however. The quarterback read the coverage correctly. The receiver was open. It probably is a touchdown if there is a clean pocket.

With that said, Darnold once again underestimates the speed of the defense and how quickly windows close. This is another throw he might get away with in college that won’t cut it in the NFL. He has to learn when to just throw it away.

Play #3

Of the four we are going to look at, this one is the most frustrating to me because Darnold’s first read is open. The Jaguars are playing Cover 3 zone, and Chris Herndon is running a route to the flat. No defender has outside leverage.

Herndon is clearly Darnold’s first read. If he leads Herndon this is a catch, and the tight end has a great shot of scampering down the sideline for a touchdown. Even though he sees Herndon is open, Darnold doesn’t fire, however.

Instead, he works to his second read Quincy Enunwa. A.J. Boute reads this play, and fires to the ball to break up the pass.

Bouye jumps the route and drops an interception.

Again I come back to speed. In a compressed area of the field like the red zone, windows are tight and close quickly.

But it never should have come to that. Darnold just missed his read.

Play #4

The Jets run a double slant to Darnold’s right.

Jermaine Kearse, the inside receiver, draws his man Tyler Patmon. There is a big window to hit Robby Anderson, the outside receiver with Patmon on Kearse and A.J. Bouye (yellow) sitting way back.

Patmon ends up breaking up this pass.

I think Darnold just needs to be a bit quicker here. There is a small but noticeable hesitation.

Again, it comes down to speed.


I think if there is one common theme here, it is the speed of NFL players. Many rookies comment on how the biggest difference between college and the pros is how much faster the players are and opportunities slip away on this level. It is only natural there is an adjustment period.

Darnold is also still learning some complex defenses and throws he can’t get away with on this level.

Shaky protection isn’t helping matters either.

If you think I’m being a soft grader, you’re right. I am because that’s how you have to approach a rookie quarterback in the first quarter of his rookie season. It’s a major adjustment moving to the NFL, and plenty of mistakes are going to happen.

When you start a rookie quarterback, a team is generally saying the season is no longer purely about wins and losses. If you catch lightning in a bottle that’s great, but it’s mainly about developing the rookie and working through the learning process. Given how difficult it would be for this team to compete for a Playoff spot under any circumstances, starting Darnold was probably a wise decision for this team. But it means working through these rough moments.

The question for me isn’t whether we are going to see moments like this. It is whether these will start to go away over time as Darnold learns from his mistakes. If we are looking at these errors happening at this rate a year or two from now, the big picture analysis will be very different.