888 Yards, 3 Touchdowns, 1 interception, a passer rating of 99, and a 3-0 Win-Loss Record. These are undoubtedly good stats that, to most, would fall into the category of being nearly elite numbers for a quarterback.
If you had told New York Jets fans one year ago today that these would be the stats of Sam Darnold three games into the 2021 season, many wouldn’t believe you at all, many would question you, and an unfortunate amount of long-time fans would probably predict that this level of production would be coming from somewhere outside of New York. After being traded to the Carolina Panthers this past spring by the Jets in order to make way for rookie Zach Wilson, Sam Darnold’s career trajectory has taken a complete turn for the better, while his replacement finds himself struggling amid a somewhat disastrous start to his NFL career.
On March 17, 2018, the New York Jets traded up to the third overall pick in the NFL draft, allowing them to select USC quarterback Sam Darnold who they hoped would become the future face of the Jets franchise. Darnold was a highly graded prospect coming out of USC. Some draft experts even projected him to be the first overall pick. Three years later and after three mediocre at best seasons starting for the Jets, Darnold finds his career sitting in the hands of a new team, finally seeming to be breaking out into a franchise quarterback in the NFL. So why now? Why is now the time that Darnold finally seems to be finding consistent success as an NFL starter? To put it simply, the New York Jets. To be more fair, the previous era of New York Jets and specifically, the front office and coaching staff. Darnold’s talent was never absent, even in New York, he was simply handled poorly.
When examining what was wrong with Darnold’s situation in New York, there are many things you can point to. The first thing that is often looked at is a quarterback’s supporting cast on the field. QB success and struggles are often partially attributed to their respective offensive lines, who determine how much time they have to demonstrate their playmaking abilities. On the Jets, Darnold was consistently playing behind some of the worst offensive lines in football. In fact, Pro Football Focus ranked the Jets’ O-line 26th or worse in the league in all three of Darnold’s years there. So now that he is doing pretty well, it would make sense for him to be playing behind a better line, however oddly enough, this is far from the case. Entering the season Pro Football Focus ranked the Panthers line 30th in the league. So once again, Darnold is in a situation where he is playing behind a far from sufficient protection unit. Yet he is finding new success. In terms of supporting cast, we can also look at receivers. With the underrated D.J Moore, rookie Terrace Marshall, and former Jets teammate Robby Anderson, Darnold certainly received an upgrade in his receiving corps, however, this is far from a league elite squad and Darnold’s tape over these first three games do not suggest that his receivers are carrying his performance at all. In New York his receivers were sub-par but with players like Breshad Perriman and Jamison Crowder, there was certainly some level of talent there.
One thing that Darnold does have by his side in Carolina that he was not provided in New York is a consistent run game. Christian McCaffrey is an elite-tier running back who provides the ability to maintain a workhouse rushing load and provide a productive dump-off cushion in the passing game. A great running back is something that can easily take weight off of a young quarterback’s shoulders and allow them to thrive. The Jets had attempted to provide this to Darnold with Le’veon Bell in 2019. However, this quickly failed due to the Jets coaching staff’s lack of ability to effectively incorporate Bell into the offense. This was a significant contributor to Darnold’s demise in New York. From what it seems, the coaching staff and front office just did not prioritize Darnold’s development as a QB.
His head coach for the past two years needs no introduction. Adam Gase, who was apparently hired with the idea of progressing Darnold’s career, did no such thing. In fact Darnold’s personal QB coach Jordan Palmer, claimed on a podcast that Gase never reached out to him even once through all two years filled with struggles. If this isn’t an indication that your quarterback’s development isn’t being taken seriously then I don’t know what is. Luckily for New York, the front office was able to recognize Gase’s issues and fire him. However, they shouldn’t have hired him in the first place. Gase’s only credibility is his association with Peyton Manning’s MVP season in Denver. By this point, Manning was already an established veteran and did not need the help of a coaching staff to develop his game further. Gase rode Manning’s coattails to a head coaching position with the Dolphins, which quickly failed. The Jets had no business considering him even as a candidate to be their head coach. Darnold’s career in New York was hampered by a front office that surrounded him with lackluster personnel and incompetent coaching.
So where will both Darnold and the Jets go from here? With his star running back McCaffrey injured, Sam Darnold will face a stretch with less help over the next few weeks that will perhaps test his true viability as a starter in the NFL. Back in New York, Zach Wilson and the Jets have had an ugly 0-3 start, including a loss to Darnold’s Panthers. Darnold’s newfound success is surely a blemish on the organization, but also should serve as a lesson of what not to do this time around. The Jets front office must focus on creating a good situation for Zach Wilson so they can properly assess his talent and potential. Jets fans must consider the big picture before calling for a change every time Wilson makes a mistake. It takes time to build an environment conducive to success. The Jets must build Wilson’s surroundings properly, otherwise, they will put themselves in a never-ending cycle of failed quarterbacks.