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A Look Back at Sam Darnold

2nd in a series

New York Jets v New England Patriots Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images

A Look Back At Sam Darnold

Sometimes in order to look forward you have to look back. Yet for a true retrospective you have to travel farther back than first anticipated. By starting earlier you devise a better picture of where someone has been, the direction they traveled and where they may end up. An NFL player’s journey is not a straight line. It’s a convoluted labyrinth of missteps and pitfalls that everyone must transverse. There is no ideal path to success. All players must find the course that is right for them. They may get help along the way, but it is their own unique personal odyssey, their story.

Sam Darnold went through a whirlwind of a season in his first year as the Jets QB. The 3rd overall pick in the 2018 Draft had the future of the entire Jet nation on his back as he entered training camp on July 24, 2018. He turned 21 years old just 49 days before. To give a true context to this, Sam Darnold left San Clemente High School and enrolled at USC 3 years and 16 days before his first day of an NFL training camp.

That was a long way to go in such a short period of time for anyone. Even Superman had a chance to grow and acclimate himself into a new culture. Sam Darnold had a little over 3 years to grow from a child to playing against seasoned NFL professionals who wanted to do nothing more than destroy him.

Lets see how Sam got to this point in his career. He actually had a decent quarterback coach in high school, Troy Kopp. A former All-Conference QB at Pacific U, he played in the Arena Football League (1994-1997), had a cup of coffee with the San Diego Chargers, and spent three years in the CFL. So Sam at least had a chance to play in a pro style offense in high school.

At USC his QB coach in 2015 was Marques Tuiasosopo who played at the University of Washington and was a dual threat QB. His career completion percentage was below 55%, and he ran the ball over 345 times. Sam’s QB coach in 2016-17 was Tyson Helton who is the son of the head coach Todd Helton. Tyson played QB (for his father) at Houston. He had a career stat line of 44 completions on 109 attempts (40.4%) with 1 TD and 6 INTs.

His offensive coordinator at this time was Tee Martin who was a QB at Tennessee from 1996-99. He had a career completion percentage of 55.4% and ran the ball 204 times. The bottom line is that Sam Darnold never received the type of coaching to teach him how to be a technically sound and fundamentally strong QB. Sam basically learned everything on his own and just used his natural abilities to succeed.

Now let’s jump all the way back to July 24, 2018, Sam’s first day of training camp. Sam had been through OTAs so he had some idea of the offense Jeremy Bates was using but only in a rudimentary sense.

Bates himself was the just starting as the Jets offensive coordinator in 2018 after moving up from QB coach in 2017. Before that had not coached since he was fired from the Chicago Bears in January of 2013. So it was not like Bates had a lot of time to work with Sam on mechanics and fundamentals. It was just getting him to learn the playbook, and that was it.

Sam was in slightly over his head that first year, and he knew it. This year he is hopping for a smoother transition. “My head might not be spinning as much, trying to figure out if I’m running with the 1s, 2s or 3s,” he said of the team’s upcoming training camp. “What’s so-and-so’s name? Oh yeah, what’s the play? There were just so many things I was thinking about my rookie year. So many different, stressful environments that I was put in, but I definitely think it made me a better player and better person overall, so I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. But it’s definitely going to be a lot smoother this second go-around.”

So let’s see how this all played out in 2018.

In Sam’s first game he had his 2nd highest completion percentage (76.19%) of the year and his 2nd highest passer rating (116.8). It was a magical night for the Jets and for Sam as well culminating in his first ever TD pass in the NFL.

I will remember this moment forever because I was so conflicted when it happened. I was truly happy for Sam on his first ever TD and for the Jets to go up 10 points just before halftime. I recall dropping my head and wondering if Sam will get the type of coaching to improve his technical side of his game. I mean his mechanics and fundamentals are all over the place. He looked frantic in the pocket. He threw off is front leg, and the pass itself was just a heave in the direction of a covered receiver. It was a 50-50 ball, and Robby is not big enough to be a great contested catch WR. CB Tevon Wilson was right there with Robby and would have had a better shot of catching the ball if he had just got his head around.

With a rookie QB there are going to be ups and downs, but I wanted to see him evolve in his technical and football acumen so he could have long term success. His feet need to be quiet, not bouncing around while looking at routes and coverages. It’s not ideal. It is like trying to watch TV while you are jumping rope. You can do it, but it’s hard to see everything and keep focus. Sam also needs a quiet base so he can step into throws and not just rely on his arm to get the ball there.He will have more velocity, and it will reduce the chance for arm problems later in his career.

The next week against Miami I saw some minor improvements at times, and at other times I saw regression. Sam threw for 334 yards and a TD but had two bad INTs that hurt badly. This play before the half was a good throw and I thought a sign of good things ahead.

You can see how Sam drops back then looks left but come quickly back to his right, steps up in the pocket, and delivers a strike to Terrelle Pryor who is wide open after dusting Xavien Howard on the play. Sam’s feet are not exactly quiet, but they are not nearly as frenzied as they were the week before. This was improvement I thought, but habits are hard to break.

The t the Jets lost their next three games after the opening win while Darnold threw 2 TDs but 4 INTs. His completion percentage for those games was 53.8% (57 for 106) after the opening day effort of 76.2%

The 5th week at home against Denver Darnold had 3 TDs in a 34-16 Jets romp. Darnolds day was highlighted with these two nice passes to Robby Anderson.

You can see Darnold gets back in his drop and hurls a long pass to a streaking Anderson who uses a double move to just blow by Bradley Roby for an easy 76 yard TD. Darnold’s feet are much more calm in this game, but he is still throwing the ball off his front foot. This means he is using just his arm to throw, which can lead to inaccuracy and future arm problems. Using your legs and throwing in rhythm is most effective method of passing.

The passing game was helped by the fact that Denver was getting thoroughly run over by the Jets ground game. The Jets had a season high 323 rushing yards in this game which forced the safeties closer to the line of scrimmage. This left little help for the secondary.

On this second TD to Robby you can see that there was no double move needed as he just runs by Bradley Roby (again) for a 11 point lead.

This is one of the best passes Sam threw all year. You can see him look left then turn and throw in rhythm with good weight transfer. By doing so he threw a perfect pass that hit Robby on the hands 40 yards downfield. The corner has decent coverage but the ball was thrown on the money, and all Robby had to do was catch it.

Darnold’s mechanics were not perfect but they were much, much better on this play. For the day though Darnold was not as sharp. Outside the two TDs he threw for a combined 101 yards Darnold was 8 for 20 for 97 yards with 1 TD and 1 INT.

The next week the Jets evened their record at 3-3 with a surprising victory against a good Colts team. Sam had his most impressive day as a whole but still showed some bad habits flaring up. He went 24-30 (80%) for 280 yards 2 TDs and 1 INT and this nice play just before the half to Jermaine Kearse to get the Jets a field goal. Darnold made a nice choice as he also had an open Bilal Powell underneath running a drag route that would have gotten an easy 10 yards, but he realized he needed as much yardage as possible with time running out for an easier field goal.

You can see Darnold dropping back and looking left then quickly back to the right. He throws a laser shot to Kearse. Darnold is hopping a little bit but steps up in the pocket and gets a lot of mustard on the ball. He is also stepping towards his target with a better target line to his receiver. That is a key element. It is not a spiral, but the ball gets there in a hurry before the defense can close in. If you want to put the ball in tight windows you must have great technique to do so. Get yourself balanced and steadied. Get your weight on your back foot, and use that weight transfer going forward to snap that ball into a tight hole.

The Jets get the ball after halftime and drive straight down the field. On this play Darnold uses some poor technique, but the play is so well set up that two players are open for an easy TD. Darnold is off balance as he fakes the bubble screen to the left. That leaves Herndon (and Leggett) wide open with only 1 defender.

Some people hate bubble screens (Jon Gruden), but this is one of the reasons you run them. They can be an effective way to get a powerful WR in the action and gain some easy yards on the outside. Once they are successful you can run highly effective fakes off the same action. Darnold throws this ball off balance and off his front foot again, reverting back to old tendencies. This is why you practice good technique over and over again, to get sound muscle memory so you throw correctly every time.

You would think that after having his best statistical game ever it would be a springboard to better things, but it was not. Rookies will do that to you. As soon as you think they have it, they fall off the deep end. This is what happened to Sam.

After this game the Jets lost the next three games by a combined score of 74 to 33 with Sam throwing 2 TDs and 7 INTs. Some were worse than others, but he got into some really bad habits, like staring down receivers. This next clip was one of the worst passes Sam threw all year.

This was bad (high school bad) because Sam did nothing right on the play. He drops back and stares down his receiver all the way. Kiko Alonso is watching him like a hawk and just moves right into the path of the ball before the pass is thrown. Darnold again throws off his front foot so it’s just a lazy pass with nothing on it to a receiver who is surrounded by 5 defenders. Darnold is not even under any pressure whatsoever. I have no idea what made him throw this ball; it’s unsettling.

From another view you can get a better idea of what was happening.

You can see Alonso (circled) drift right over into the passing lane, and Darnold should have seen that. This is only a two man route, but Darnold had a safety valve in Crowell wide open in the flat. He was only going to get maybe 5 yards, but it is better than the alternative. During the three game losing streak Darnold was 52 for 110 (47.2%) with the 7 INTs.

Darnold strained his foot against the Dolphins and was out for the next game. We had no idea how long he would be out, and I wrote that he would be best served to sit out the rest of the season, watch McCown and work on his mechanics. Others argued that he needed to play in order to become better saying that you can’t learn anything on the bench. Well as it turns out we were both right and we were both wrong.

Darnold came back and played after sitting out over a month (3 games and the bye week) and was visibly better for it. We had no idea what Darnold was doing during that time, but he wasn’t just relaxing on the bench. Said Darnold “Obviously, you don’t want to get hurt and it (stinks) when I’m not able to play, but I think the break and being able to just relax and have some time off was actually really good for my mind as well.”

What did Darnold do when he wasn’t playing that got him on the right track? “I really do think it was just, you know, watching Josh and just the way that he went about studying the plays that are in the game plan; It was literally everything,walkthrough, practice, how he treated everything. I think it was just awesome to be able to learn and watch him. I think that’s the reason for, you know, me playing a little bit better these last couple games.”

He came back in Week 14 against Buffalo and played much better. It wasn’t great, but it was better than the previous 3 weeks. Plus he was coming off over a month of inactivity so he played well all things considered. He was very mobile, took no sacks, and went 16 of 24 for 170 yards with 1 TD and 1 INT.

Here you can see the feet are somewhat improved. He is stepping towards his target but he is still throwing of the front foot. He just needs to have better rhythm, drop back, hit the back foot as an anchor, and let the ball rip going forward.

No one knows this better than Sam as he tries to use better technique and mechanics to improve his play. “So, just continuing to clean up my feet and continuing to clean up my rhythm in terms of when I need to throw the ball and get it out of my hands,” said Darnold.

The following week against the Texans Darnold had a very good game. He played within himself, didn’t force things, and used his feet well to escape pressure. Here Darnold leaves the pocket under duress but keeps his head up, looking downfield to find an open receiver.

He finds his fellow rookie Herndon with whom he has built a solid foundation of trust in their first year together. The Jets lost to the Texans, but Darnold impressed many including an All Pro in JJ Watt who grabbed and hugged Darnold after the game and told him, “You’re going to be a great pro.” The relevance of that was not lost on Darnold, but he still knows he has a lot of work to do. “It means a lot coming from a guy like that,” Darnold said. “At the same time, I’ve got to continue to work hard and continue to sharpen all the tools in my toolbox so that every single time I play a good player like him I can continue to play well and do my thing.”

Darnold kept the ball rolling with an excellent game against the Packers who came back to beat the Jets in overtime. Darnold is a film junkie and in the offseason likes to watch every game that Aaron Rodgers plays; “I look at Aaron all the time, first of all just to watch some of the cool throws that he’s able to make,” Darnold said. “He really is the most talented person I’ve ever seen the way he’s able to get rid of the ball and throw the football. Just from that aspect, it’s fun as a quarterback knowing how hard the position is, knowing how hard it is to play, it’s really cool to be able to watch someone really make it look so easy.”

Here against the packers he keeps his feet steady, with a good target line and gets the ball to his favorite target in Herndon.

“I feel like I’m seeing the field really well and continuing to improve every single week, So these last couple of weeks, I’m just hoping to build on that.” Darnold said

On the day Darnold was 24 of 35 (68.6%) with 3 TDs and zero INTs. Darnold’s improved play is noticed in the locker room and by people closest to him as in center Jonotthan Harrison, “You see a lot of growth, You see him getting more and more comfortable each day, each practice, each game in the NFL as a whole and running an NFL offense. It’s very comforting to see the growth and he’s just exuding that much more confidence in the huddle.”

Darnold appreciates the the kind words, but knows it is up to him to right the ship and make better plays. “On a couple plays, I feel like I was indecisive, I think I’ve been seeing that all year. I Just have to continue to make clean decisions and when a guy is open just to get it to him. Also on the quicker throws, be ready to throw them. I feel like sometimes my feet, I was ready to throw a deeper route, whereas maybe I could’ve been ready to throw a little bit earlier.”

The last game against the Patriots was a tough game for the Jets. The Jets just came off a heartbreaking OT loss to the Packers and had to go to New England to play a game the management didn’t want to win. Their leading rusher was Elijah McGuire, and the leading receiver was Deontay Burnett. Darnold was still going to try and win.

This next clip may be the best setup and all around nicest throw Darnold made all year.

Be still my heart. Darnold drops back, sticks his back foot in the turf on the 7th step, and balances himself as he scans the field. Then he turns his hips, points his foot toward the target with a great target line and powers through the throw. It’s just beautiful. The result is a ball right on target to a receiver with a small window. This is what I was looking for all year. Now we know he can do it. He just needs to do it again, about 15,000 more times in his career.

Our last clip is from the same game and shows you the superior talent Darnold has. If he continues to progress he has one of the highest ceilings of any young QB, right up there with Watson and Mahomes.

This is just a gorgeous throw to a covered receiver, hitting him in stride on the hands at the sideline while running for his life on his own goal line. It takes amazing accuracy, arm strength and confidence in yourself to make that throw. In his last three games of the season Darnold was 64 of 101 (63.4%) with 5 TDs and zero INTs all while running for his life as the line gave up 9 sacks. It would have been much more if not for Darnolds mobility.

So where does Darnold go from here? Well not to worry because as we have been watching basically nothing Darnold has been working hard on his game, “I worked on things that I really needed to work on. I think I did that my rookie offseason as well in terms of turning the ball over, but this last go-around — I was able to focus in. I was also able to watch a lot of my tape from this last year and really figure out how I want to get better.”

He did the same last summer before he came to the Jets. People pointed to the fact that Darnold had 20 turnovers in his last 20 college games including 5 lost fumbles and worried about how he would do in the NFL. His only strip sack came in the last week of the season.

So is he working on mechanics and fundamentals as well? “I think being able to step to my target and getting my target line right is something that I’ve always wanted to work on. It’s something that I’m definitely working on this season because I think you can notice my rookie year, I used a lot of my arm. I feel like I’m capable of doing that, but I want to steer away from that as much as I can.”

“I want to use my legs as much as I can to be able to thread balls in there, so that I’m not putting so much stress on my shoulder and my elbow because it’ll help me down the road in terms of shoulder being sore and elbow being sore. That’s kind of where I want to head towards and that’s really what I’m trying to work on this offseason.”

Mechanics and fundamentals are what I preached all year last year. Darnold knows it better than I do, and you can tell he worked hard on it. Just go back to the top of this article and watch that first TD throw. Then come down and watch the last two throws. It’s a night and day improvement.

With the work Darnold is said to put into this offseason (he is said to be working again with QB guru Jordan Palmer) I look for a huge jump in his play this year despite the fact the Jets added zero WR’s in a draft loaded with receivers. At least that Dortch kid could surprise as a UDFA and Jamison Crowder with be a huge addition to this offense. I just wanted another big play receiver to augment Robby Anderson.

I got my wish, though, I saw Sam evolve as a QB in his first year although I had a lot of trepidation. Let’s hope he takes a huge sophomore leap and becomes what we all think he can be; they guy who leads us to a championship.

What do you think?