Sam Darnold likely kicked himself over a mistake that most of the viewing public didn’t even notice.
There was plenty of blame to go around in Gang Green’s disappointing loss in Cleveland last week, but don’t tell that to the Jets rookie quarterback bent on perfection. The smart and sensible crowd fully understands that a 21-year-old guy making his third career start will experience growing pains. The difference between the bad, good and great signal callers ultimately comes down to their capacity to adjust and learn from mistakes or missed opportunities.
Here’s a play that illustrates where Darnold is in his development and where he’ll likely wind up given his ability to learn: The Jets opened their second drive of the second quarter on their own 37. On first down, the Jets used “13” Personnel (1 RB, 1 WR, 3 TEs).
The lone wide receiver (Quincy Enunwa) was lined up outside the numbers to the right. All three tight ends were on the left side of the formation with Chris Herndon and Jordan Leggett off the line of scrimmage. The play call: A designed bootleg to Darnold’s right. At the snap, Leggett bolted to his right across the line, Tomlinson ran an intermediate route peeling right and Herndon ran an over route behind him peeling to the deep right portion of the field. (Enunwa ran down the right sideline for what appeared to be a clear out).
Darnold’s pass on the run to a covered Tomlinson was nearly intercepted by linebacker Joe Schobert. Meanwhile, Herndon was streaking free 25 yards downfield (after beating defensive back Jabrill Peppers) for what could – and probably would – have been a 63-yard touchdown.
Darnold’s ability to keep his eyes up in the pocket or when moving outside of it is one of his gifts. To this point, however, his eyes typically don’t look beyond the intermediate areas of the field. It’s unclear what Darnold’s exact reads were on this particular play, but had he scanned the deep part of the field, he would have seen that defensive back Damarious Randall was running with Enunwa down the right sideline, leaving a cavernous opening for Herndon.
“It’s really understanding what the defense is trying to do and just get it in my playmakers’ hands and let them do their work,” Darnold said Monday about his takeaway from his first three starts. “Take the shots when they’re there. That’s really going to be the biggest thing for me as I continue to move on through the season…. Just take what they give me. Then, when the shot is there, take the shot. If we just keep on taking the underneath stuff, then hopefully the shot is going to appear.”
Darnold had his shot right there, but he didn’t take it. It’s hardly the end of the world since he has shown a great ability to rarely make the same mistake twice. The Jets, frankly, want him to get comfortable with the speed and chaos in front of him. So, if he gains 12 yards on an intermediate completion instead of hitting the home run, so be it. It’s acceptable right now.
Darnold said that he learned one valuable lesson while self-evaluating his first three games.
“(It’s) just going with my gut feeling and really trusting my eyes,” Darnold said. “Trusting what I see and letting it rip. That’s the biggest thing. Just going 1 to 2 to 3… Going through my reads quickly and decisively. (When) I look back at it… sometimes I would think the defense is maybe not going to give me something and I would skip over a progression. And it was like, ‘Man, if I really just look at that first progression, it was there.’”
“A couple plays popped up like that,” Darnold continued. “From that perspective, I just wish that sometimes I could just trust my gut and trust the progression. If I continue to do that throughout the season, I feel like I’ll have a lot of success.”
Todd Bowles wisely isn’t overly concerned with some of Darnold’s admitted areas that need work.
“That’s part of being a rookie quarterback when you see different things,” Bowles said. “If it’s drawn as it is on the blackboard, that’s easy, but when they do different things and you hesitate a little bit… Those things come in time. That’s part of his maturation process.”
Darnold hasn’t looked rattled despite less-than-ideal circumstances that included three games (two on the road) in 11 days to kick off his NFL career.
“I think he will come out of it fine,” Bowles said of his young quarterback responding to his first taste of adversity. “Sam has the right mentality and he has the right work ethic to learn (from) what he has done wrong, as well as the rest of the team. They’ll come back out of it. He’s not in it by himself. We are in it as a team. Everything he learns from is an experience.”
That experience will serve everyone well moving forward. Bowles praised Darnold for his toughness against an ultra-aggressive, disguising defense on a short week, but the rookie knows he needs to deliver better results.
Darnold, whose 72.0 passer rating is only better than four quarterbacks through three weeks, is fully aware of the bottom line. His performance against the Browns (15 for 31, 169 yards, 2 INTs, 38.2 rating) wasn’t good enough.
“That’s awesome that Coach said that and he would notice that, but I expect more out of myself,” Darnold said. “It’s great that he praises me for my toughness…. I feel like we have a lot of tough guys on this team. But I got to be better. I got to execute better. I know how to be tough. I was raised to be that way. I’m not going to be any different than that. But I got to be better with my reads and understanding what the defense is doing. Just be a better quarterback.”