When we talk about the struggles of Sam Darnold, one idea that keeps recurring is that the surrounding talent and the head coach are so bad that they are the primary reason Darnold is struggling, and they perhaps even make it impossible for any quarterback to do much better. Is there a way we can evaluate this idea and tease out how much merit there is here? Well, maybe. These are extremely difficult things to quantify. Isolating the causes and assigning values as to who is responsible for what is problematic. But let’s give it our best shot.
Let’s start with the premise that most of the problems come down to the head coach, Adam Gase. The idea that Gase is not a good head coach and not a good offensive coach is not difficult to defend. In his years as a head coach Gase has presided over one disastrous offense after another. He’s never had a season as a head coach where his team outscored the opposition. He is currently on a streak in which the Jets have scored a grand total of 7 points combined in the second half of the last four games. We can go on, but I think most people agree Gase is not very good at his job.
The question here, however, is more nuanced than that. Here we’re not so much interested in the big picture of whether Gase is a good head coach (he’s not). Here we’re interested solely in whether he is a destroyer of quarterbacks. And on that score, surprisingly, there is little evidence to support the proposition.
Gase coached Peyton Manning with the Denver Broncos in 2013 and 2014. Peyton Manning posted perhaps the finest season of his career under Gase in 2013 with the Broncos, though it wasn’t that far out of the norm for Manning. Gase probably doesn’t deserve a ton of credit for one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time having a great season, but there is no evidence he damaged Manning in any way.
Adam Gase coached Jay Cutler for one year, in 2015. That year Cutler had the best passer rating of his career at 92.3. While it was arguably the best year of Cutler’s career, his numbers across the board were just marginally different from the immediately preceding years. Most of the improvement came down to a reduced interception rate, as Cutler posted the second best interception percentage of his career. Overall it’s not easy to make a case for Gase improving Cutler all that much, but again there is no evidence Gase damaged Cutler in any way.
Next we come to the interesting case of Ryan Tannehill. Adam Gase coached Ryan Tannehill for three years, from 2016 - 2018 in Miami. Prior to Gase coaching the Dolphins, Tannehill played four years and had passer ratings as follows:
Under Gase Tannehill had the following passer ratings:
2017: Out injured entire year
Again, like Manning and Cutler before him, it’s difficult to make the case that Adam Gase improved Ryan Tannehill all that much. On the other hand, there isn’t any evidence Gase damaged Tannehill either. Through the 2018 season, Gase seems to have been a largely neutral to slightly positive influence with his quarterbacks. Any improvements were marginal, but there doesn’t appear to be any evidence Gase in any way damaged his quarterbacks.
Then things got a little more interesting. Ryan Tannehill was the first Gase quarterback to have extended action in the prime of his career after Gase left. And what Tannehill has done post-Gase has been eye opening. In 2019 with the Tennessee Titans Tannehill posted career highs in virtually every statistical category, and by wide margins. Tannehill posted a 118 passer rating to lead the NFL. He also led the NFL in yards per attempt and yards per completion and he earned his first Pro Bowl honors. In 2020 Tannehill continues to post results far better than he did in Miami, with a sparkling 110 passer rating.
Here then is the first evidence of Gase actually holding a quarterback back. But it’s complicated. Tannehill went from a Miami Dolphins team with one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL to a Titans team with one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. He went from a Dolphins team that had Kenny Drake running the ball to a Titans team that had Derrick Henry running the ball. Those things make a difference. How much of a difference is difficult to quantify. I doubt they explain the entire transformation of Tannehill, but that is just my personal hunch, unsupported by evidence. What we can probably say here is Gase was not producing optimal results with Tannehill. There was room for improvement, as evidenced by Tannehill’s huge leap in Tennessee. What is a bit more problematic to argue is that Gase had a major damaging effect on Tannehill. There is a wide chasm between achieving optimal results and actively damaging a quarterback. Given the evidence at hand, in which Tannehill was marginally worse for four years before Gase and much better for a year and a half after Gase, Gase probably falls somewhere in the middle.
That brings us to Sam Darnold. Darnold is a different kind of situation for Gase. He is the first non-veteran quarterback Gase has coached. Thus we have no pre-Gase record to compare with. All we have is what Darnold has produced under Gase, which has not been good. Given the body of evidence we have about Gase’s quarterbacks prior to Darnold, I would be very hesitant to attribute all or most of Darnold’s struggles to Adam Gase. On the other hand, you can perhaps argue that Gase is better suited to coach established quarterbacks, and he is terrible at developing a young quarterback. Unfortunately there really isn’t any good evidence for or against such an argument. As far as developing a young quarterback is concerned, there is no evidence pro or con regarding the Gase effect outside of Darnold himself. How much of Darnold’s struggles are attributable to Darnold and how much to Gase is therefore a question in the end that is very difficult to answer. If Darnold were a veteran quarterback I would be fairly confident that the Gase effect on Darnold was fairly minimal. But Darnold is not a veteran quarterback, and it is entirely possible Gase’s effect on developmental quarterbacks is much more negative than his effect on established quarterbacks. We have reached something of an impasse here, so let’s move on to the supporting cast.
This is another difficult problem from which to tease out definitive conclusions. There aren’t a lot of analogous situations to the 2020 Jets. But let’s try to put together some preliminary analysis.
Let’s start with the 2019 New York Jets. That team was also deficient on offense. The 2019 Jets featured an offensive line no better than, and probably marginally worse than the 2020 Jets. The 2019 Jets running game was much worse than the 2020 Jets. The 2019 Jets averaged just 3.3 yards per carry and 79 yards per game, compared to 4.3 yards per carry and 103 yards per game in 2020. The 2019 Jets had better targets. The top four targets for Darnold in 2019 were Jamison Crowder, Robby Anderson, Demaryius Thomas and Ryan Griffin. That’s better than the 2020 top four of Jamison Crowder, Braxton Berrios, Jeff Smith and Chris Hogan. The 2019 team was significantly worse in the running game, slightly worse on the offensive line, and better with the passing targets. The coaches were largely the same. Overall that probably gives a slight edge to the 2019 team. But that slightly worse supporting cast in 2020 has produced significantly worse results. In 2019 Darnold produced a passer rating of 84. In 2020 that number is 66. That’s a large decline with just a slight diminution in supporting cast. The evidence here points to actual significant regression by Darnold, as opposed to the supporting cast destroying his results.
Now let’s look at a comparison to a similar team of the past. Those aren’t easy to find, as the 2020 Jets are pretty historically awful. However, one team that makes some sense for comparison’s sake is the 0-14 1976 Tampa Buccaneers, widely considered the worst team in post-merger NFL history. That Buccaneers team never scored more than 20 points in a game, and they were shut out 5 out of 14 games. They set an NFL record with a -287 point differential which may never be broken over a 14 game stretch, and they averaged less than 9 points per game. This is a worthy adversary for the 2020 Jets in terms of awful NFL teams, and most would argue that as bad as the 2020 Jets are, the 1976 Buccaneers were worse.
Let’s look at the offensive personnel of the Buccaneers. The offensive line was terrible. The Buccaneers quarterbacks were sacked at an 11.7% rate, fourth worst in the NFL in 1976. The Buccaneers running game was awful, averaging 3.5 yards per carry, the worst mark in the NFL. One Tampa Bay running back was Ed Williams, who ran for 324 yards that year, averaging 3.7 yards per carry, and never started more than 5 games in any other year of a 4 year career in which he totaled 896 yards rushing. The other primary back was Louis Carter, who had a four year career in which he totaled 940 yards and averaged 2.9 yards per carry. As bad as the 2020 Jets backs are, the 1976 Buccaneers backs were worse.
The primary targets on the 1976 Buccaneers were wide receivers Morris Owens and John McKay and tight end Bob Moore. Moore was on his last legs. He never had more than 375 yards receiving in any year of his 8 year career. Moore caught 23 passes for 281 yards in 1976 and never caught another pass in the NFL. Owens was a decent receiver who totaled 2062 yards in his 5 year career. He had never caught a pass in the NFL before that 1976 season, when he caught 30 passes for 390 yards at the age of 23. Think of him as the functional equivalent of a poor man’s Jamison Crowder. McKay played three years in the NFL, all with Tampa Bay. In his three year career he played 43 games and caught just 41 passes for 632 yards. His rookie year in 1976 was his best year, when he had 302 yards receiving,
Suffice it to say those Buccaneers offensive personnel were no better than, and likely worse than, the 2020 Jets offensive cast. So how did the Buccaneers’ quarterback do with such an awful supporting cast? Well, his name was Steve Spurrier. Spurrier was a career backup whose only season starting more than 10 games in the NFL came with that 1976 Buccaneers team. Spurrier was on his last legs at the time, and he retired after that 1976 season. Steve Spurrier posted the following index numbers in 1976:
Yards per attempt Index: 78
Passer rating index: 92
Touchdown percentage index: 83
Interception percentage index: 114
Compare this with Darnold’s numbers with the 2020 Jets:
Yards per attempt Index: 67
Passer rating index: 68
Touchdown percentage index: 73
Interception percentage index: 87
Note that the journeyman Spurrier’s numbers, in his last year before retiring, with a worse Tampa Bay supporting cast, are significantly better than Darnold’s numbers across the board.
Now this is just one comparison, across a wide time divide, with comparable supporting casts. We should be careful to avoid any definitive conclusions based on one comparison. However, the comparison is at least somewhat suggestive, and what it suggests is a career backup quarterback is able to post decent numbers with a supporting cast worse than Darnold’s. That doesn’t prove anything, but it is some evidence that perhaps Darnold’s woes may not be all attributed to his supporting cast.
Putting this all together, I don’t think we can reach any unassailable conclusions here. Often the best we can do with the evidence is say “I don’t know.” That’s something we hear much too infrequently in a world of hot takes and definitive conclusions based on little more than pre-existing bias. So on the basis of the evidence presented, are Darnold’s woes completely or primarily attributable to his coaching and/or supporting cast? I don’t know. I don’t think anyone can know with absolute certainty. But I think what evidence we have suggests Adam Gase is probably not a quarterback killer, and Darnold’s supporting cast probably does not preclude a decent quarterback from putting up significantly better numbers than Darnold is putting up this year. You may disagree with that, and that’s OK. The main point here is to present the evidence we have and let everyone decide for themselves where that evidence leads. I hope this at least gives you something to think about when evaluating Sam Darnold and his future in the NFL.