Jets quarterback Sam Darnold talks about his mindset on making scrambling plays after a 29-22 loss to the Texans on Saturday, Dec. 15, 2018.
Andy Vasquez, Staff Writer, @andy_vasquez
EAST RUTHERFORD — Sometimes it’s a little hard to believe that Sam Darnold is only 21 years old.
The Jets’ rookie quarterback carries himself like a veteran in interviews. He doesn’t seem to get rattled by anything on the field, either.
But when you start to see how much he’s grown as a quarterback over the last several weeks, it becomes a little easier to remember: he’s still a kid — the youngest Week 1 starting quarterback since before 1970 — and he’s got a long way to go before he’s a finished product.
Darnold has looked like a different quarterback since missing thee games with a foot injury in November and December. He returned to lead the Jets to a come-from-behind win over the Bills two weeks ago, and last week he came just short of pulling off an upset against the Texans.
In his three games before the injury, he completed 47 percent of his passes and two touchdowns to seven interceptions. In his last two games, he’s completed 64.5 percent of his passes for three touchdowns and one interception.
Sunday, he’ll try to build on those strong performances as the Jets host the Packers (1 p.m. on FOX). So what’s changed?
“I think he’s just getting more comfortable,” offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates said “He’s playing faster. He’s able to dissect defenses quicker. He’s understanding that if number one [read] is not there … find two and three. He’s playing with confidence and he’s having fun.”
The most noticeable difference in Darnold’s game over the last two weeks has been his ability to make plays outside of the pocket and on the run. He improvised by scrambling to throw touchdown passes to Robby Anderson in both games. Against Houston, he made several plays in which he was able to feel the pressure, evade it and then deliver a strike while moving.
Darnold wasn’t making these same plays earlier in the season. So why now? Darnold says it’s just a matter of getting experience.
“To be honest I was still trying to get a feel for it,” Darnold said. “Right now I feel like I had a lot more confidence than I did earlier in the year, just going out there and being able to scramble on plays out there and go make a play.”
Being a mobile quarterback is a good thing, as Darnold has proven. But it can also be dangerous and expose him to more hits. Darnold was banged up in the Buffalo game and limping against the Texans. But the rookie, who practiced fully all week, says he’s mindful of not putting himself in too much danger with his scrambling. But he also doesn’t plan on changing the way he plays.
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“There’s definitely a fine line there,” Darnold said. “I feel like I’ve been doing a really good job of understanding when to scramble and when to get down and all of that kind of stuff. So, I’m just going to keep playing from that aspect.”
The big concern with a young quarterback is that he’ll be a little too eager to escape the pocket and trouble, when the best play is to just stand in there and get rid of the ball. But Bates said that Darnold hasn’t been prone to that.
“I think you just let the game come to you,” Bates said. “You’ll see a lot of young quarterbacks that will take off and run. He’s a pocket passer, and when it presents itself–when the lane opens up or things break down, he knows when to make plays. You don’t want to encourage just running around and scrambling. The defensive ends are extremely fast in this league, and that’s where you get in trouble.”
The key, Bates said, is for the quarterback to recognize when the defense is vulnerable while the play is happening. And he says Darnold has already figured out how to do that after 11 games.
“If all of a sudden, they [defensive ends] do [stunts] or they lose their gap control and he’s able to see it, he’s able to take advantage of it,” Bates said. “We’ve been encouraging it. He did a really good job, I thought, at USC and he’s been able to do it the last couple of weeks.”
Despite the progress Darnold has made, he still sees room for improvement. Darnold has talked about getting in and out of the huddle more quickly all season. And he continues to criticize himself for not being decisive enough. Even after the Texans game, the best performance of his career Darnold, thought he could have made decisions more quickly and done better with his footwork.
It’s one of the things that makes him unlike most 21-year-olds. Darnold is able to focus on this moment, this game, because he knows it’s all that matters. But he also knows where he’s heading.
“I always say that I’m taking it one game at a time and that’s definitely true,” Darnold said earlier this month. “But at the same time I do think about where I’m going to be at in a year or two from now. I’m really excited about where I can go from here and really optimistic about the future and what it holds.”