Bouncing off of a smoking hot opening to training camp, Sam Darnold enters the preseason with a great chance to seize the Jets’ starting quarterback position entering their Week 1 Monday Night Football Opener in Detroit. As long as he looks comfortable and avoids portraying himself as a deer in headlights, it seems Sam is on the track to starting right off the bat.
Now, while expectations for Darnold long-term are very high, expectations for any rookie need to be tempered. If there’s one thing NFL history has taught us, it’s that rookie quarterbacks are proven to have a hard time producing in their first go-round. Of the 52 rookie quarterbacks to throw at least 200 pass attempts since 2000, only 8 of them (15%) have accrued an above league average passer rating. Only 7 (13%) of them have won 10 or more games as a starter. Only 4 (8%) have registered an above average passer rating and 10+ wins as a starter.
The odds are stacked against a rookie playing at a high level, no matter how great they may become. Darnold must be allowed to ride the roller coaster through the highs and lows, and learn to keep getting back on line for another spin. He cannot and must not be babied - let him play his style of football and figure out where his comfort zone is as a professional.
With all of that in mind, whose rookie season represents the best model for Darnold to try and match this year?
I do not choose Ryan as the model for Sam because he lit it up as a rookie. He posted an 87.7 passer rating and 215 yards per game, both decent for a starter in today’s NFL. I choose Ryan because the questions he answered and the foundations he set as a rookie are very close in line with what Jets fans should be hoping to see out of Darnold this year.
One of those questions that make Ryan a good comparison for Sam is the similar turnover propensity the Boston College alum entered the league with. Many have questioned Sam Darnold’s turnover issues and whether it will sink him in the NFL. Darnold had 13 interceptions and 11 fumbles (9 lost) in 2017. While I have found there to be little correlation between college turnovers and professional performance, there is no better example of that conception than Matt Ryan.
Ryan threw 19 interceptions in his final season at BC, the most interceptions entering the league for a first round pick from 2007-2016. He also had 7 total fumbles (3 lost) - his combined total of 26 interceptions/fumbles in his final college season entering the league is also the most for a first round pick in that span.
Ryan has had no problem producing in the NFL. He has won an average of 9.5 games per year as a starter - among the 50 first round selections since 1996, only Peyton Manning (10.2) has won at a higher rate. Ryan has a career passer rating of 93.4 with 260 touchdowns and 41,796 yards, including an active streak of seven consecutive 4,000-yard seasons. The guy is a great quarterback.
As a rookie, coming off of the same turnover questions, Ryan took a 4-12 Falcons team from 2007 and led them to 11 wins as a rookie in 2008. Ryan started all 16 games and had an efficient rookie year as he cut down his turnovers, throwing only 11 interceptions on a solid 2.5% interception rate and losing only 2 fumbles. All the while, he still maintained his playmaking ability downfield, averaging 13.0 yards per completion - which remains the second highest mark of his career.
Now, this is not to say that Sam needs to add 7 wins to the Jets’ 2017 total of 5, nor is it to say they play a similar brand of quarterback. They do not - Ryan is a sturdy pocket passer while Sam is a mobile, on-the-run gunslingling playmaker. Ryan is a phenomenal example because the questions he entered the NFL with are similar, and what he accomplished as a rookie is a great benchmark for Darnold to aim for in his current predicament.
Many have debated whether or not it is worth throwing Darnold right in to start 16 games as a rookie. As best demonstrated by Ryan, I have found that first round quarterbacks who start all 16 as a rookie tend to have much greater success. Round one quarterbacks (from 1996-2015) who started all 16 have averaged 7.0 wins per year in the NFL - the highest average among any games-started total. Comparatively, first round quarterbacks who have started less than 16 games have averaged 3.8 wins per year. Ryan is among the most successful of that 16-game group, right up there with Peyton Manning. First rounders who have proven they deserved starting jobs from Day 1 have ultimately proven to trend much more towards success than those who have not started from Day 1. If Sam could do the same, proving he can beat out decent competition in Josh McCown and Teddy Bridgewater, it could only be a positive sign for him.
I made an analogy earlier comparing a rookie season to a roller coaster ride. Ryan’s rookie season precisely matched that description. After opening his career throwing only 13 passes in a Falcons home win over the eventual 0-16 Lions, the team traveled to Tampa Bay to take on Jon Gruden and his top-ten Buccaneers defense. Ryan took 4 sacks and threw 2 interceptions, completing only 39% of his passes and earning an unsightly 29.6 passer rating. The following week, the Falcons returned home and defeated the eventual 2-14 Chiefs - but Ryan was not relied upon once again, as he threw only 18 passes. The next week, the Falcons were to face another vaunted defense on the road - John Fox’s Carolina Panthers team. Ryan threw 41 passes and mustered 158 yards - a terrible 3.9 yards per attempt and culminating in a 60.8 passer rating.
So, over his first quarter as an NFL starter, Ryan owned measly numbers of 167.3 yards per game, a 52% completion percentage, 6.4 yards per attempt, only 2 touchdowns, and a 70.7 passer rating. Those are ugly numbers. The team’s only two wins under his lead were both at home against an 0-16 team and a 2-14 team, and they only did it while limiting his workload to minuscule numbers. When forced to travel on the road and carry the offense against a pair of good teams, Ryan was awful and the team was obliterated each time.
How did Ryan bounce back? The following week, the team went into Green Bay and defeated the Packers for Ryan’s first road win, as he threw for early career highs of 194 yards and 2 touchdowns. Following that, Ryan won back-to-back games for the first time as he beat his career best once again with 301 yards to take out a good Bears team. Over the final three quarters of the season, Ryan led the Falcons to a 9-3 record while throwing for 230.1 yards per game, a 64% completion percentage, a robust 8.4 yards per attempt, 14 touchdowns, and only 9 interceptions, all for a very solid passer rating of 93.2. Atlanta made it to the playoffs, but lost the Wild Card game to the Cardinals.
Ryan had a sub-80 passer rating 6 times in his rookie regular season - the Falcons went 5-1 in the games after those poor outings, as Ryan never compiled back-to-back sub-80 games.
If you asked me to list three things you would like Sam Darnold to accomplish this year, my answers would closely match what Ryan accomplished as a rookie. I would like Sam to fix up his turnover issues. Now, I don’t expect him to be Mr. Clean, especially as a rookie, but it would be great to see him keep his turnover rate at an average level for now. That’s a great base to improve off of. I want to see him stay aggressive and bounce back when things get rough. If he struggles during the 3 games in 10 days start, keep airing it out. If he has a bad start, I want to see him stay equally confident and play well the next week. If he throws an unlucky pick down the field, I want him to take another shot. Finally, I want him to change the narrative on a downtrodden franchise. Provide hope. Showcase potential. Set the foundation for a revival.
Ryan did all of those things. He went from a college turnover machine to a solid ball protector as a rookie - and has grown from that base to become a good ball protector throughout his career. He started off his rookie year awfully, but bounced to back to win a lot of games and play good quarterback over the rest of the year. When he had a bad game, he usually played well and won the next one. He took a 4-12 team and took them to the playoffs, and since then has spearheaded the greatest era in the history of the franchise.
Domination is not what we should crave from Darnold in 2018. If he can confront and defeat the obstacles in front of him the way Ryan did as a rookie?
The man might have finally arrived in Florham Park.