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Jets 2020 Pressure Points: Sam Darnold

New York Jets v Buffalo Bills Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

The start of a new season typically brings hope and optimism. It also brings varying degrees pressure to prominent members of each organization. We are examining how much pressure key members of the Jets face this season. We continue the series today with Sam Darnold.

I think the odds of a healthy Sam Darnold being the Jets’ opening day starting quarterback in 2021 are over 90%. It would likely take a complete collapse from Darnold in 2020 for the Jets to move on from him, and even if such a collapse happened an offseason quarterback change still wouldn’t be a lock.

That isn’t to say Darnold lacks any sort of pressure in 2020. It would be one thing to have a fully established Darnold entering 2021 off a breakout third year, It would be a very different scenario to have Darnold coming off a bad season and getting one last chance with a third coach in four years. It’s also possible, arguably even likely, the situation at the start of next year will fall somewhere in the middle with Darnold’s future hopeful yet ambiguous.

Sam Darnold’s first two seasons have been difficult to judge because of how poorly the Jets have built around him. We like to view quarterbacks as the people who make or break franchises. The great quarterbacks lift their teams to new heights. The bad ones doom franchises. I think the truth is more nuanced, though. The surroundings of quarterbacks have a lot to do with how they grow and whether they thrive.

This isn’t a topic people are comfortable discussing because it’s completely theoretical. It’s impossible to prove or disprove an alternate scenario where a certain quarterback spent his career on a different team under different circumstances. It also wouldn’t be accurate to totally dismiss the role quarterbacks themselves play in their own development. They aren’t purely products of their respective environments.

On the extremes, talent might be all that matters. You could surround Christian Hackenberg with ten All Pros and the greatest coaching ever. He still wouldn’t be an NFL caliber quarterback. At the other end, Peyton Manning probably would have been an all-time great no matter where he ended up.

For most quarterbacks, though, I think you could make a case that success or failure is part talent, part circumstance.

Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, and Russell Wilson all will probably be in the Hall of Fame someday. All of them eventually grew into passers who could carry their teams.

However, none of them was THE driving force behind Super Bowl wins early in their respective careers. All three spent their early NFL days on defensive oriented teams. Roethlisberger and Wilson had great run games to lean on.

They all played a role in the success. They weren’t just along for the ride. These quarterbacks were expected to play efficient football. They also needed to hit the clutch pass when their teams required it, which they did. These quarterbacks eventually improved and developed to the point where the offense could revolve around their talents, but it wasn’t that way early on. Their teams nurtured them before they got to that point.

Were these guys so good that they would have been Hall of Famers no matter what? It’s impossible to say. A lot of people would probably argue yes. We don’t know, though. It is easy to laugh at teams for letting great players fall in the Draft, but there are frequently good reasons players fall, even those who eventually become great. Neither Wilson nor Brady was a first round pick. Maybe the NFL is just full of inept teams, but I think it’s also possible the Seahawks and Patriots did a great job developing them and helping them to work past legitimate Draft concerns.

It doesn’t have to be an all or nothing thing. Success can be partially due to the players themselves and partially due to positive surroundings. The reverse is also true.

When it comes to Sam Darnold it’s easy to compare relatively pedestrian stats through two years while other young quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson were winning the MVP. I’m not sure it’s entirely fair to do that, however.

Again it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. It can be true both that Mahomes and Jackson are supremely talented players who deserved their accolades and that they were able to reach such heights because their teams put them in a position to do so.

This is the type of play that displays the incredible talent of Patrick Mahomes. Any quarterback who can evade pressure like this and accurately make an all arm throw against his body from the sideline of his own 35 to between the hashes of the opponent’s 30 has special ability.

But making the special play is only part of being great. It you are inconsistent on a snap to snap basis, plays like that leave you known only as somebody with great future potential, not a currently elite player.

Mahomes himself has said that he only really started picking up more complex nuances on reading defenses during the 2019 season. That means he still was operating with a relatively basic conceptual framework during his MVP 2018 season.

Your first instinct might be to say, “How good is this guy that he could win the MVP without knowing everything about reading a defense?” There’s something to that. It’s also worth noting that Mahomes wasn’t suggesting he was totally lost scanning the field from the pocket like Hackenberg. Still I think there were some deeper things at work.

The Kansas City Chiefs gave Mahomes the infrastructure he needed to help along his development and compensate for the things he still needed to learn. It isn’t really a knock on Mahomes that he was learning the finer points of reading coverages so early in his career. Almost every young quarterback needs work with that.

His team gave him the tools to work around the learning curve. He was provided the best scheme in the league and a great group of targets. The year before Mahomes took the starting job in Kansas City, Alex Smith, one of the most notorious checkdown artists in the NFL, finished tied for the second highest average yards per passing attempt in the league. When Mahomes was injured in 2019, the Chiefs scored 24 points in two games started by veteran journeyman Matt Moore. This is a system that makes quarterbacks better.

The most obvious way to support a quarterback is to give him playmakers. The Chiefs have loaded their offense with those. You don’t have to read a defense if you know before the snap your guy is going to win his assignment, and you can just throw it to him.

The Chiefs also have leaned heavily into the league’s biggest offensive trend, the run-pass option (RPO). RPOs don’t require the quarterback to scan the entire field and make nuanced coverage reads. The decision-making process is simplified.

Mahomes really only has to read one guy on this play. There is an out route called for the outside receiver. If this one defender attacks the line of scrimmage to play the run, the pass will be wide open.

If he drops into zone coverage, he will take away the passing lane, but he won’t be around to help against the run. The Chiefs will have a blocker for every run defender, and Mahomes can hand the ball off.

Pro Football Reference charts the number of passing attempts off RPOs. Mahomes had 64 from RPOs, over 13% of his attempts in 2019.

The only team that had more total RPO passing attempts in 2019 than the Chiefs was Jackson’s Baltimore Ravens. Almost 20% of Jackson’s passing attempts were RPOs.

Of course the quarterback’s talent also is a key component.

A young quarterback only becomes an MVP, however, when talent meets the right scheme and supporting cast.

That brings us back to the Jets. Darnold has flashed the ability to make special plays. The Jets have done a terrible job building around him, though. At best the skill players he has been surrounded with have been mediocre, and that is likely too generous of an assessment. The schemes have done anything but make his job easier. On top of all of this, the Jets have given him one of the worst offensive lines in the league.

For all of the talent of MVPs such as Mahomes or Jackson, it isn’t clear how far along they would look if they were in unimaginative schemes without playmakers and were getting beaten up every week because of bad offensive lines. I don’t think either player would look like a failure. I think we would still see the special moments to provide hope for the future. But I don’t think either player is an NFL MVP on the Jets at this point in their respective careers.

It’s completely unfair to either Jackson or Mahomes to say something as simplistic like Darnold would be an MVP in Kansas City or Baltimore.

I do think the perception of Darnold among NFL fans would be very different in a situation where his team built an infrastructure to amplify and lift his talent rather than ask him to overcome massive structural issues each week on his own.

Heading into 2020 I think expectations need to be kept in check. For the first time in a long time it seems like the Jets might have a general manager who understands what needs to be done, but building from scratch takes time.

It might be too much to ask Darnold to ascend to the top level of quarterbacks in this league given the remaining infrastructure deficiencies. The offensive line will likely be improved from its disastrous 2019 state but is still incomplete. The skill players almost all have massive question marks. The uninspired scheme remains unchanged.

If a true breakout season is beyond reach, it might be more fair to ask Darnold simply to show enough flashes of brilliance to keep hope alive for the future. We want to enter 2021 hopeful and excited, not nervous about it being Darnold’s last chance.

Pressure Rate for 2020: Moderate