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Where Sam Darnold Needs to Improve

#1 of a series

Oakland Raiders v New York Jets Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

This is the first installment in a series detailing the progress of the Jets QB Sam Darnold. Sam is a young man who will not turn age 23 until training camp for the Jets in 2020. He has a quality skill set, a superior intelligence, and ample physical tools to become a dominant QB in the NFL.

That is not always enough. Many QB’s have come into this league with the same skills only to fail miserably. In fact, the success rate is incredibly low for players with superior skills. The reason for this is that the QB position, unlike any other position in the NFL. is determined not by physical stature but by vision, football aptitude and ability to adapt quickly to a changing situation. You have to be able to think fast, recognize formations. and direct your players into the correct alignment, all while being a true leader who others trust in order to be truly successful.

You have to be the smartest player on the offensive team with the ability to recognize defensive formations and the variations off them. You have to know how a defense will morph before the transformation. In this way you can change your play call to take advantage of the situation.

This is the reason Russell Wilson is so successful yet why he wasn’t drafted until the 3rd round. He is not the biggest or fastest, and he doesn’t have a incredibly strong arm. He is a great leader who analyzes a situation and can make game changing plays in a split second. These are skills you can’t test, and there is no gauge to determine how a player will do under the bright lights of the NFL. Wilson doesn’t have a great nucleus of players around him, and his offensive line has been poor for years. Still he sits at 9-2 with a chance to be a top seed in the NFC playoff chase.

Superior skill is always paramount to greatness, but it is not the underlying factor. Greatness lies in the cerebellum and the ability to adapt and make a play. You have to see what is in front of you and make the right choice. Technical acuity along with the capacity to understand what is going on in front of you from the QB position is the basis for quality play.

First of all I like to say that I believe that Sam Darnold has the qualities to be a top 10 QB in the NFL. He could even be top 5 if he can improve his anticipation along with his ability to direct a defense with his eyes. He is young and has received very poor coaching during his young life. He is technically deficient in the way he plays the position. He has never been taught to throw the ball correctly during his playing days.

This is not to say he can’t change over time. I wrote during the 2018 Draft that of all the quarterbacks that Lamar Jackson had the best athletic traits of all the players at his position. The problem was he was so incredibly horrible with his technique that he would never be a consistent player unless he improved dramatically his approach to throwing the ball.

Jackson began the season as an observer but ended up a starter later in the 2018 season. He was wildly inconsistent. It showed in the Wild Card game against the Chargers when he completed under 50% of his passes and was sacked 7 times; his QBR for the game was 9.5.

Jackson learned from his defeat and work amazingly hard in the offseason. He worked on his mechanics, and though he is still a work in progress he is light years better than he was last year when he could barely throw a spiral. Now he is a leading candidate for MVP of the league. Sam has the ability to do the same thing with his mechanics.

Let’s look at some film of Sam to see what is going on with his technique. Sam has very poor technique because he had poor coaching. He has an athletic build but a remedial skill set as a QB. Let’s look at some video,

First of all I am not picking on Sam. I like Sam. I want the best for him. Yet he struggles with technique and with his understanding of his offense. I picked a few random video’s from games past to show my point.

This is a play from the Giants game (I put in slo-mo so it is easier to see) on a flea flicker where Vyncint Smith is wide open for a TD. This is a gimme touchdown and a huge missed opportunity for Sam and the Jets. To be a franchise quarterback you can’t miss easy scoring chances. This play can only be run a few times a year and is designed to be a big, game changing play. You just can’t be missing those in the NFL.

Sam gets the ball and is under no pressure from the Giants defense. He can take his time to throw a easily catchable ball for Smith. This is actually not as bad as some other throws he makes, but you can see as he winds up he is way too wide open in his stance and finishes with his back leg in front of his plant leg.

This is a total arm throw with his back foot off the ground as he releases the ball. This is how you throw in the sandlot when you are playing with friends. An NFL QB throws with his whole body and not just his arm. To do so you must close your stance and rotate your hips open as you throw. This will give you better touch and accuracy on the ball while putting less stress on the shoulder. Proper mechanics will lessen the possibility of shoulder problems down the road. Poor fundamentals have led to shoulder problems with Cam Newton, and Cam is a lot bigger and stronger with much more arm strength than Sam.

Let’s see Russell Wilson with the same throw on a flea flicker from the same week. Both throws are a little over 50 yards, and the differences are subtle yet they make all the difference in the world. Remember that Sam has a stronger arm than Russell Wilson.

Wilson’s receiver is speeding down the seam with two defenders closing in on him. Wilson gets the ball from Chris Carson just as the video begins. Wilson balances himself with his body parallel to the sideline, not the line of scrimmage. He rotates his hips slightly and lets the ball go leading the receiver to the furthest point from the defenders. Wilson lays a perfect pass into his hands. This is perfect placement and a soft ball that is easy to catch.

Notice how much less stress Russell Wilson has on his body, much less torque because he threw the ball with better technique. Accuracy along with the right touch is much easier to achieve when you throw the ball with correct technique. In this situation Sam had a much easier throw to a man who already had his defender beat badly.

This next clip is from the Raiders game that the Jets won handily. On this play Sam flees from pressure that doesn’t exist and makes a wildly dangerous throw that somehow turns into a 31 yard gain.

All Sam has to do is take a step or two to his left, and he has the whole field in front of him. He can choose to run the ball for a 1st down, or preferably wait for Robby Anderson to uncover from his crossing route (which he would have) and then get him the ball. Instead Sam races toward the line of scrimmage which forces Robby stop his route and begin a scramble drill where you do anything to uncover quickly for your QB.

Sam decides to make a wildly awkward throw with his body momentum going left with him throwing slightly back to his right. This is troubling because Sam chooses to make a crazy, off balance throw when he had no need to do so. He decided to make this type of play when he had much better, more sensible options.

The defender is right in his path, and miraculously the pass is not picked off or deflected. If the defender had gotten a finger on the ball it would have sailed over Robby’s head and into the arms of the safety behind him. This was a reckless play that Sam got away with. It shows a lack of discipline which cannot be allowed at the QB position. There are times when you have to make a play. This was not one of those. Possessions in the NFL are precious. You can’t risk a turnover when there is more than ample time to make a great play.

This play worked out for the Jets, but it was a bad play on the part of Sam. He should have more patience to let the play develop. This just shows Sam’s inexperience. If this had been Aaron Rodgers or Russell Wilson they would have looked to make a high percentage completion or a big play downfield. Sam probably had another 4 or 5 seconds before defenders would have reached him. That is an eternity for a defense to cover the receivers. He is all alone. There no need to rush a play.

This last clip is a situation where Adam Gase devised a great offensive play, and I am guessing Sam just forgot the play for a second. This was an easy touchdown, but Sam forgets to throw the Ball to Ty Montgomery who is wide open.

You can see that all the action on the play (Bell in the backfield, Crowder from the left side) is headed to the right except Montgomery who is going left against the grain. Ge’s covered by the safety who is way out of the play, trailing badly. The entire play is set up for Montgomery to be the primary receiver; your first option. All Sam has to do is start to the right (like he does), allow the receiver to get into the clear, and then throw back over the line to Montgomery for a walk in touchdown.

Sam is right there. It looks like he is going to unload the pass, but for some reason he continues right. Then it looks like it dawns on him where to throw the ball, but it is too late as the rush catches up to him.

Sam is saved by the fact the ref calls roughing the passer (how I don’t know) on the play. He later runs in for a touchdown of his own but takes a big hit on the play. He could have avoided all that with a simple dump off pass.

The play was set up for Montgomery to get the ball so how Sam forgot the primary receiver on the play is head-scratching. Sam is young, but he has to know exactly where he should be looking to throw the ball every time a pass play is called. Sam should have been salivating as Montgomery made his way into the clear and got him the ball. Instead he takes an unnecessary sack which could have injured him or taken away a scoring chance.

Things like these have been happening all year. The Jets coaches get better film than I do. These are teaching moments that should be gone over ad-nauseum with Sam to get him out of the habit of making decisions like these.

Sam is the future of this franchise. There is no doubt about that so the faster he progresses the quicker the Jets will become relevant. Let’s hope Sam can take a Lamar Jackson type leap this offseason, develop some better technique, and just feel more comfortable in the offense. Hopefully he can look back at these formative years as the impetus he needed to hone his skills and become a champion. I just have to wonder how he is going to get there with the coaching he is getting.

What do you think?