One of Sam Darnold‘s greatest traits, as we heard numerous times already during his short NFL career, is him being completely unfazed by adversity. Bad plays, bad games – the young signal caller from California just brushes them off and moves on with the same stoic expression. Many experts agree that this is what will make him a star under the bright lights of the National Football League.
Eleven days after New York Jets fans all around the world saved up the papers‘ backpages to store relicts of the Messiah‘s arrival, it is clear that this strength of the 3rd overall pick in the 2018 Draft will be tested more than anyone could have imagined. And a huge reason for it is his own team and more importantly, his own coaches.
Everything is going according to plan?
But him struggling was the plan after all, wasn‘t it? Jets head coach Todd Bowles made him the youngest quarterback to start a season for that very reason. So that he could learn, make mistakes and grow from it. The record? Winning games? Gaudy numbers? All would have been icing on the cake. Just give the kid experience and let him take steps to a great future – for himself and the organization.
After the Jets‘ horrendous 17-21 defeat to the Cleveland Browns on Thursday Night Football though it should be clear to anyone that what is transpiring out on the gridiron can‘t be the way to go. And if it is, then the Jets brain trust is playing a tremendously dangerous game with the future of their most priced asset.
Sam Darnold himself won‘t admit it, of course. "It‘s not acceptable the way that I played", said the quarterback just moments after the loss to the Browns. "Simple as that. I just have to play better." True words, which sound awfully similar to what he said after the home loss against Miami on Sunday. But the much bigger problem than a 21-year-old rookie not playing well all the time – which, as we know, should be expected – is the way the Jets are letting him operate.
That they don‘t throw him out there in an air raid offense tossing the ball all around the lot is a given. Not with his struggling excuse of an offensive line or the lack of surefire playmakers around him. But handcuffing him like they did in Cleveland – and in the first half against Miami – could hurt him way more than a few more sacks or interceptions on a few deep balls.
Scared to throw beyond the line of scrimmage
Out of the 25 passes he attempted before they were trailing the Browns in the waning moments of the game, Darnold‘s passes travelled for an average of 5.19 yards in the air (from the line of scrimmage). Offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates called the grand total of eleven screens, six of Darnold‘s first seven passes didn‘t travel beyond the line of scrimmage. Against the Miami Dolphins Darnold‘s throws averaged 5.3 yards in the air and that is with them trailing for almost the entire game. In the Jets lonely win of the year against the Detroit Lions he managed 8.6 yards per pass in the air. Maybe, just maybe, a coincidence.
But back to the Browns game. Imagine you are a defender facing an offense that barely if ever throws the ball beyond the first down marker. It sounds pretty cool if you ask me. The Jets did it exactly three times before they had to open it up late. The entire field gets crowded, the secondary will creep up more and more plus the linebackers will sit on every short route – making it that much more difficult to complete even the most simple plays like screens or slants. All of it results in an offense as stagnant as Todd Bowles‘ facial expressions.
Admiringly, Sam Darnold also takes the blame for that: "I feel like I‘m responsible for the stagnant offense that we had". He says that the offense is more than willing to take shots over the top and make the defense back off. "We always have shots in our offense, we are always trying to take them". They didn‘t in Cleveland, they didn‘t against Miami. And in Detroit the Jets interpreted taking a shot as running a high school play on their quarterback‘s first ever career pass.
Run game suffers along the way
It is not just that the Jets seem awfully afraid of letting Darnold throw the ball beyond ten yards. Their way of using the run game doesn‘t help him either. Sure, in theory a solid ground attack is a young quarterback‘s best friend but the rushing attack is doomed from the get go if the opponent – due to the overall makeup of the offense – is stacking the box with up to nine players. The results are as predictable as the Jets‘ approach in itself. 16 of the 24 first down plays against the Browns were runs, 16 of 20 if you don‘t count the end of either half where even the Jets knew they had to pass with the clock ticking down. 11 of the Jets‘ 30 rushing attempts went for no gain or negative yardage in Cleveland, further marginalizing the problems of the overall offensive approach.
As frustrating as the loss yesterday was, it‘s incredibly minor compared to the situation the Jets are targeting with their idea of handling their franchise signal caller. Glimpses of it were obvious in Cleveland already. Darnold hesitated, didn‘t go through his progressions, he got happy feet in the pocket - things that are the direct results of playing in a scared offense, led by scared coaches who are trying not to lose. Only problem is they are doing just that. And if they are not careful, they might also lose a lot of Sam Darnold‘s confidence along the way.
If what you do isn't working, change it
The solutions of course aren‘t easy to find considering the makeup of the team. A terrible offensive line doesn‘t help, neither do one dimensional receivers like Robby Anderson or Terrelle Pryor and at the end of the day Darnold of course is inexperienced. But is would certainly be a start to just take a few deep shots with max protection, even if they fall incomplete. Defenders will think about those. The Jets could also scratch some of the heavy tight end formations, which neither have resulted in a strong running game or delivered many positive pass plays. Roll out after roll out, while a strength of Darnold, is also a way too conservative and predictable approach. It also further limits the quarterback‘s options.
Some of those tweaks in the offense will results in mistakes. But the Jets have to let Sam Darnold make the "right mistakes" in order to grow from them. Let him make mistakes trying to win the game, not force him to make mistakes in the wake of being passive and scared. Making mistakes is perfectly fine for a young player,
Especially when he is as unfazed by adversity as Sam Darnold is. Let‘s hope the Jets coaches don‘t ruin this trait and let him become what everyone believes he can be – the face of the franchise.