It’s no secret that Sam Darnold has had his fair share of struggles as a rookie. However, he has actually done some really impressive things that the stats won’t show you. Which is why I went through the trouble, and broke down his film for all of you loyal readers.
My biggest question with Darnold coming out of USC, was whether or not he could consistently play within structure in the NFL. I think he has somewhat answered that concern to some degree. He is still learning how to attack certain coverages, and what keys to identify pre snap. Yet, it is evident that he is a lot more patient in the pocket, when comparing his pro tape to his college tape. He is trusting the progressions of the play, and not rushing out of the pocket at every opportunity. This play against the Broncos is a good example of what I am talking about.
Darnold started this play off by identifying the cover 1 coverage pre snap. Meaning it was man to man across the board with one single high Safety. Both outside receivers are running fade routes, which is perfect for beating this coverage.
As soon as the ball is snapped Darnold looks to his right. He did this to look off the single high Safety, Darian Stewart (red marker). Stewart is reading Darnold’s eyes, meaning he drifts to wherever Darnold looks. Darnold wanted to throw it to Robby Anderson, but had to look in the other direction to keep Stewart on the opposite side of the field. Which gave Anderson a one on one battle. This subtle use of eye manipulation, showed me that Darnold processed the coverage because he executed the blueprint to beat it.
Not only did Darnold make the correct read, but he also threw a beautiful deep ball. The ball was placed right over the defender’s head, and into Anderson’s bread basket (red circle is the ball). This is the most impressive throw I have seen from Darnold thus far, and he did it all within the structure of the play. Clearly his physical talent was necessary to execute the pass, but the receiver wouldn’t have been open if he didn’t process the coverage correctly. This play is evidence of growth, and Jets’ fans should be excited.
Now when I said that I needed to see Darnold play within structure in the pros. That didn’t mean that he should never play out of structure. His unique ability to extend plays, and make accurate off platform throws is what makes him special. Very few Quarterbacks are better when things break down, and the chaos increases. Which is why I fell so hard for Darnold. I questioned if he could still play out of structure in the NFL, and he has shown flashes that he can (clearly not at the same rate as he did in college).
Let’s look at this play against the Dolphins. The Jets were running a vertical route concept, meaning the receivers are all running go routes, and the tight end runs a deep crossing route. The Dolphins were in cover 3 which, is a pretty good coverage to stop this concept.
You can see that no one was open, and the pass rush was about get home. Darnold could have thrown the ball away and lived to see another down. However, he decided to make something happen with his feet.
He felt the rush inside and escaped out of the pocket. Most Quarterbacks would tuck the ball and run, when they are rolled out to the left and see open grass in front of them. Yet, Darnold kept his eyes down the field, and was still looking to throw.
If you go back and look at the first picture of this play. You can see that there will be break down in coverage if the Tight End continues to move towards the left sideline (red route). The Left Corner should carry with the Receiver running a go route. Which clears the intermediate third of the field. This is exactly what happened, and Darnold recognized that his Tight End (red circle) would be open.
His throw was perfect, hitting his TE right in the hands. Yet, the ball was dropped. Darnold made a positive play out of nothing, and his teammate let him down. Which has been a recurring theme that I have seen when watching the Jets.
Now I know I showed “Sammy D” a lot of praise, but there is still a lot he needs to improve in terms of his decision making and how he sees the field. This play against the Jags demonstrates what I am talking about.
The Jets ran a stick concept on the left, and a vertical concept on the right. The Jags were in cover 3, so Darnold had to find the soft spots in the zone. The the softest spots in cover 3 is up the seams of the field. Which is where Jermaine Kearse (red arrow) is running.
Quarterbacks have to be willing to contest tight throwing windows, and throw with anticipation against zone coverage. Which is what Darnold failed to do here. The ball needed to be thrown at this very moment of the play, while Kearse was running in full stride to the end zone. He needed to lead the ball out in front of Kearse, and drop it into Kearse’s bucket (so it would go over the defenders). Yet, Darnold hesitated and didn’t pull the trigger.
You can see here that Darnold felt pressure that wasn’t there, and escaped a clean pocket. By doing this he didn’t have stable platform to make this throw, and Kearse had to slow down his route. Which made this throw even more difficult.
Darnold still tried to attempt this throw off his back foot. Causing him to float the ball up into the air, and giving the defenders time to make a play. He is lucky this ball was not intercepted. Darnold has to anticipate throws like these a lot earlier because hesitation leads to interceptions in the NFL.
This next play that I chose to break down is really the same issue from the last play. The difference is this mistake basically costed the Jets the game.
The Browns were in cover 6. Meaning the left side of the defense was in quarters coverage, and the right side was in cover 2. The Jets ran curl routes with one go route. Again this is zone coverage, so Sam had to find the soft spots.
Everything is covered up on the outside, but the curl over the middle was open. I really don’t understand why he waited to pull the trigger because the receiver was open for a good 3-5 seconds (which is an eternity in the NFL). Darnold stared right at him, and seemed timid to make the throw.
He did end up pulling the trigger, but at the absolute worst time. The receiver was double covered, and pressure was right in his face. He threw the ball off his back foot again, which led to a crucial interception. This was an absolute terrible decision that he just can’t make.
Darnold’s rookie performance has been extremely up and down so far , and will probably continue to be that way for the rest of the season. With an average supporting cast, a shaky play caller, and a lack of experience, Darnold doesn’t have a lot going for him. Yet, this season should have always been about him learning and adjusting to the NFL. Nobody should’ve expected the Jets to be a contender this year. They just aren’t good enough, and no rookie QB could elevate a mediocre team like this. Next season will be the real test for Darnold if the Jets’ front office can follow the blueprint that has helped young Quarterbacks succeed. Which is surround your QB with a ton of playmakers, and bring in an offensive minded head coach.
The thing is I actually think that current head coach Todd Bowles (defensive minded) has done a decent job. I have my doubts about offensive coordinator and play caller Jeremy Bates though. It is going to be interesting to see what the future holds for Bowles and his staff because I would not be surprised if the Jets decided to go a different direction with how the league is trending.
In conclusion, I will still continue to analyze Darnold’s games as closely I can. There will definitely be more good, more bad, and more ugly. However, I firmly believe that Sam Darnold is well on his way to becoming a special Quarterback in the NFL.