Jets quarterback Sam Darnold talks after the team’s 34-16 win over the Broncos on Sunday, Oct. 7, at MetLife Stadium.
Andy Vasquez, Staff Writer, @andy_vasquez
It’s easy to get wrapped up in wins and losses and the general week-to-week minutiae of the NFL season.
So let’s take a step back and remember that for the 2018 New York Jets, nothing is more important than the development of Sam Darnold.
And through five games, it’s become obvious that Darnold is making progress.
The 21-year-old’s numbers didn’t jump off the stat sheet in Sunday’s 34-16 win over the Broncos. He went 10 of 22 for 198 yards, three touchdowns and an interception.
But he played so much better than those stats indicated, making several head-turning throws and demonstrating an improved mastery of the offense.
And, perhaps most encouraging, he proved that this season can be about more than just his development. He’s capable of helping the Jets win right now. He certainly helped them win on Sunday.
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Darnold made two game-changing throws against the Broncos. And both came in the second quarter, when the Jets scored 21 points to take complete control of this game.
The first one was the 76-yard strike to Robby Anderson for a touchdown that gave the Jets a 14-7 lead. On third-and-9, Darnold recognized the coverage before the snap, saw Anderson had the advantage and knew where he was going with the ball the whole time.
And the execution was flawless. Darnold stood tall in the pocket with the pass rush closing in and delivered a perfect deep ball — 43 yards in the air — to Anderson who scored easily.
His second touchdown pass to Anderson was even more impressive. Darnold looked off the safety after the snap, moving him to the right with his eyes, and then threw lofted a deep ball back to the left to Anderson in single coverage.
It was the best throw of Darnold’s young career, perfectly-placed for a 35-yard touchdown.
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Early in the season Darnold missed throws on opportunities like these, or just didn’t see them. In this game, he saw them and executed. That’s progress.
Give credit to Jets offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates, who is clearly getting a better feel for his quarterback and the offense as a whole. He called his best game of the season on Sunday, putting Darnold into position to succeed and coming up with a game plan that allowed the rookie to be more aggressive.
Early in the season, the Jets relied too heavily on designed rollouts as they tried to take advantage of Darnold’s speed and elusiveness. But on Sunday he was asked primarily to stand in the pocket and make plays and the rhythm of the offense was much better. It also helped that the Jets offensive line had its best game of the season, allowing Darnold to stand in the pocket with confidence.
“I thought my feet were a lot more quiet,” Darnold said. “Which means I felt like I did a better job of staying under control and taking what the defense gives me but also taking my shots when they’re there, and understanding that we’ve got guys on the outside that can make plays.
“It was a really awesome game and we learned a lot about ourselves and just our resilience.”
Sometimes it’s difficult to believe that Darnold is 21. When Darnold finally broke through with the Anderson touchdown, after weeks of frustration, there was no over-the-top celebration. He jogged down the field to greet his wide receiver and less than a minute later was on the sideline getting ready for the next series as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
When he threw an interception in the third quarter, Darnold was anything but timid when he came back out onto the field. On third-and-12 of the next drive, Darnold dropped back and unleashed one of his best throws of the day: a laser from outside the right hash to the left sideline that fell perfectly into the arms of Jermaine Kearse.
That’s one of the toughest throws a quarterback can make. And Darnold executed it perfectly, immediately following an interception. That’s confidence and reason to be excited.
Room for improvement
Darnold was impressive on Sunday and better than his stat line. But there are still things he can do better. He sailed a few throws. Most notably, missing Quincy Enunwa in the first quarter on a wide open out route that may have been a touchdown if the throw had been on target.
Misses happen. A bigger concern for Darnold are the batted balls at the line of scrimmage. Darnold had four balls tipped or knocked down at the line during Sunday’s win, including the interception.
The Broncos obviously saw something on tape that allowed them to get their hands on so many short passes. Darnold needs to figure out what he’s doing wrong, whether it’s telegraphing his passes or a mechanical issue, and fix it before it becomes a long-term problem.