Sam Darnold Retrospective: What Went Wrong?

In three seasons, Sam Darnold had a 13-25 record as the Jets’ quarterback.Credit...Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

Sam Darnold is moving on to greener pastures (pun intended), hoping to salvage a career as a franchise QB. He was drafted with much fanfare by the Jets in 2018 and hailed as the future of the organization. Things obviously didn’t work out that way. Let’s take a look at what went wrong and examine the good, the bad, and the ugly of Sam Darnold.

The Beginning

Entering the 2018 draft, analysts heralded the quarterback class as the most loaded in recent memory. There was a wealth of diverse options, from the flashy Baker Mayfield, to the electric Lamar Jackson. Much like this year, the general consensus was that the top 3 picks in the draft would be quarterbacks. The Giants were the only question mark, still trying to compete with an aging quarterback and numerous roster gaps. When the Browns picked Mayfield 1st overall and the Giants took Saquon Barkley, the Jets grabbed Sam Darnold.

Darnold entered the draft from USC after a couple of impressive statistical years in the PAC12. Many viewed him as the best prospect in the class above the likes of Mayfield, Jackson, Allen, and Rosen. Skeptics protested that he was too young and raw and that he needed more polishing.

The Jets promptly ignored these warnings, strutted to the podium, and confidently drafted the future of their franchise. Darnold would wade his way into Gang Green through the busted remains of countless other prospects. He was the 6th quarterback they had selected since drafting Mark Sanchez, also out of USC. It is difficult to discern if this was an omen of things to come.

The Jets threw him directly into the fire in week one of the 2018 season, and he shined against the Lions. He threw to the tune of 198 yards and two touchdowns on a 76% completion percentage, en route to a 48-17 domination of Detroit. It was a huge start. While he hadn’t been perfect, it had been just the new beginning they needed in New York. Things swiftly fell apart from there.

After throwing over 40 passes for 334 yards with 1 TD to 2 INTs against the Dolphins, Darnold had a rough slide against the Browns and Jaguars, throwing 4 INTs to 1 TD over the course of those 2 weeks. This was the story all the way through his rookie season, as he went through cycles of excellent play such as against the Colts before sliding back down to mediocrity against teams like the Bears. It was a difficult way to begin, but at the end of the year the fanbase held a general feeling of optimism about his future. He showed enough for them to have hope. In 2019, that hope took a big hit.

The Downwards Spiral

After firing Todd Bowles, the Jets head coaching carousel spun its way onto Adam Gase. Boy, was that a bad turn. Gase has a rich history of ruining teams and destroying rebuilds, and that was no different here. The Jets offense in 2019 averaged an abysmal 15.8 points per game. While writing this, I have checked that number 3 times and it is correct. In an era of offensive explosions, that number is horrific. It would have been even worse had it not been for 3 consecutive 34 spots against terrible Giants, Washington, and Raiders defenses.

Sam Darnold was in no small part responsible for that trainwreck. Despite seeing an overall statistical increase from his rookie campaign, his consistency went in the wrong direction. He had rapidly gone from the franchise savior to the erratic, maligned quarterback who saw ghosts.

Jets fans wondered what had gone so terribly wrong. They could see that Darnold had failed to develop the mental side of his game, which was his main weakness coming out of college. The question was how to fix the situation. By now, the lack of talent around him had made him jumpy.

He had happy feet in the pocket, he made impulsive decisions with the ball in an attempt to be a hero, and all of this had broken down his mechanics leading to accuracy issues. Now, his future was in serious jeopardy as people questioned his place on the team. 2020 would be it. His year to prove himself. His year to solidify his place in New York. Things couldn’t have gone more wrong.

2020

The Jets made some solid moves in the offseason, picking up Mekhi Becton and Denzel Mims in the draft, two highly regarded prospects with bright NFL futures. Those two players are still bright spots on the Jets roster as of the writing of this article. But if Darnold was in need of a steady, supportive work environment to flourish, 2020 was not going to be his year. 2020 was not going to cooperate for anybody much less Sam.

With COVID protocols in place, teams struggled to regain any sense of normalcy. Both Darnold and the front office lost the fanbase by the end of the first 4 weeks, with Jets fans completely embracing the “Tank For Trevor”. Even in this they failed, giving up the 1st overall pick to the Jaguars.

Finally at the conclusion of the season, they fired Gase. The move had been a long time coming, but the damage was already done. In 2020 Darnold took a massive step back statistically, throwing for an atrocious 9 touchdowns to 11 interceptions with a completion percentage just below 60%. Jets fans clamored for Zach Wilson, and it was all but assured that Darnold had played his last snap in green. The only questions were where and when he’d be traded.

What Next?

Well, the Jets answered those questions. On Monday, April 5th, the Jets and Panthers agreed to a deal that would send Sam Darnold to Carolina for a 6th rounder in 2021, along with a 2nd and 4th rounder in 2022. While this was clearly necessary for the Jets, it’s interesting for the Panthers, and more so for Darnold.

Darnold now enters a much better situation with the Panthers than he did with the Jets, and at 23 years old there is plenty of time for a good coaching staff to turn him into a franchise player. He has rising offensive mastermind Joe Brady to whisper in his ear, and a dynamite squad of skill players to open up opportunities for him. Darnold still has fine physical ability, the responsibility is now on his shoulders to use it.

 

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