Of all Trojans in the NFL, Sam Darnold, New York Jets quarterback, might have the most pressure on him. He is in his third year in the league and the expectations are high. This past weekend, fans got a glimpse of Darnold for the first time in 2020 when the Jets faced off against the Buffalo Bills.
Darnold finished with 215 passing yards, one touchdown and one interception in Week 1 as the Jets fell to the Bills 27-17. However, Darnold received a league-worst 37.2 grade from Pro Football Focus, a grade that evaluates every quarterback’s throw, decision and accuracy. Taking into account that Darnold is in his third year and was the #3 overall pick in 2018, Week 1 was supposed to be his time to shine. He was expected to show development and progress. Instead, it was his worst nightmare.
Darnold continued to show the same inconsistencies that he has shown in the past: rushing out of the pocket too early, bad audibles and poor mechanics. On some drives, he appeared lost amid the Bills' defensive disguises and bluffs. Skeptics on Twitter had fun out of this ugly read and interception by Darnold. Darnold finished with 86 yards in the first half and a 5.7% pass completion rate in tight windows. In the first quarter on a 3rd and 9, Darnold switched out of a play to make it a receiver screen which resulted in negative yards. Later in the second quarter, he overthrew wide receivers, Jamison Crowder and Chris Hogan. Everyone expected better progression of Darnold, especially his control of the offense.
Despite the poor performance, there is still hope for Darnold to improve his stats throughout the season. The Jets got going in the second half against the Bills and Darnold threw one of the best passes of the weekend. As the game went on, he looked more comfortable in the pocket and got the quick passing going, accounting for over 130 yards. It was not enough to win over Jets fans and the media. Some analysts went as far as to call for the Jets to tank for college football’s star quarterback Trevor Lawrence in the 2021 NFL Draft.
Darnold completed one pass 20+ yards down the field Sunday. In an increasingly deep-passing league, the Jets abandoned the deep pass and had trouble completing the short ones. But there’s no ‘I’ in team. Darnold did not lose alone. Pressure was in Darnold’s face all game as the offensive line gave up a league-high 44.7% pressure rate. Jets head coach Adam Gase called multiple swing and screen passes throughout the game, which is not the Jets' expertise. The run game could not develop and the Bills feasted on the Jets offensive line. After this game, more people were calling for Gase to be fired than for Darnold to be replaced. Under Gase, the Jets have an NFL-worst more non-scoring drives than touchdowns.
Last year, the Jets went 7-6. Despite the average record, Darnold had plenty of impressive wins and was poised under a brand new system. He battled through injuries on his offensive line and threw for over 3,000 yards.
Now, with Le’Veon Bell headed to the injured reserve for the next three weeks, the Jets lose their best running back and only Pro Bowler. While the Jets improved their offensive line with rookie Mekhi Becton this year, they still don’t have a formidable receiving crew. It could be unfair to compare Darnold to other 2018 first-round quarterbacks with the weak supporting cast Darnold has on offense. All other 2018 first-round quarterbacks have Pro Bowl playmakers around them. Baker Mayfield has Odell Beckham Jr., Josh Allen has Stefon Diggs and Lamar Jackson has Mark Andrews.
The task is not much easier going forward as the Jets take on the defending NFC Champions, the San Francisco 49ers in Week 2. Despite Darnold’s mishaps, it may be too early to call for a replacement at QB for the Jets. Darnold deserves a better cast and a better coach to help him win.