FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Sam Darnold missed his chance for a Patrick Mahomes moment on Sunday. It wasn’t a left-handed flip on the run, but rather an old-fashioned, reach-back-and-heave-it pass that traveled 62 yards from launch point to landing. Unfortunately for Darnold and the New York Jets, it needed to be 61.
Down 13 points with a little more than nine minutes to play, the Jets went with an empty backfield and sent five receivers on vertical routes from their own 14-yard line. Robby Anderson, in the right slot, beat Jaguars star cornerback Jalen Ramsey on a “go” pattern. Had him by a full stride. With an opportunity to throw the Jets back in the game and make the biggest play of his young career, Darnold overshot him.
A day later, the rookie quarterback managed a gallows laugh when asked if that was the extent of his range.
“No, it wasn’t as far as I can throw it, I don’t think,” he said. “No, I put it out there for him. I know Robby can run. I was just really trying to give him a good shot and try to make the most accurate pass I could make. I just threw it a little long.”
The play epitomized the first quarter of Darnold’s season. You can see the talent and can sense the hope around the organization, but he’s just a little off.
Like his deep ball to Anderson, Darnold fell to earth after his sensational debut in Detroit. In the past three weeks, he’s the lowest-rated passer in the NFL (63.8), but he and the Jets are looking beyond the numbers. They see hidden improvements in his game.
“Actually, I thought I saw some positive things from him,” coach Todd Bowles said of Darnold’s performance in Jacksonville, where the Jets lost 31-12. “It doesn’t show on the scoreboard or in the game — and we can all do better — but I saw some positive signs from him that I was pleased with.”
Darnold said he saw the field with more clarity than in previous games, which allowed him to recognize pressure and coverages. Know this: The Jaguars mixed up their coverages more than usual, specifically to confuse Darnold. They came away impressed with his poise. A 17-for-34, 167-yard day won’t make his greatest-hits album, but he played turnover-free ball despite being pressured on 41 percent of his dropbacks, a season high.
“Obviously, it’s not the outcome we wanted, but I’m feeling more and more confident as a quarterback in the NFL,” he said. “It was very assuring to watch the game film and see how much I’ve grown, but also all the stuff that I need to work on.”
Mahomes is the newest quarterback star, a dynamic weapon who can elude defenders and throw it a country mile; he had a touchdown pass that traveled nearly 70 yards in the air in the preseason. Interestingly, Mahomes — known lately as “Showtime” — has only one more career start than Darnold, but he had the benefit of learning last season behind Alex Smith. The Chiefs decided to slow-play his development; the Jets rushed Darnold into the lineup.
While their games are different, Darnold and Mahomes have something important in common, according to former NFL quarterback Boomer Esiason. He described it as a winning mentality.
“I’m talking about the general character of the kid, the way the kid carries himself, how serious the kid is about the game,” said Esiason, who has spent time with both players in his role as a CBS studio analyst and WFAN radio talk-show host in New York. “When I met Mahomes for the first time, it was so obvious to me this kid had all the attributes from a mental standpoint you would want. That’s why I was smitten with him.
“I think Sam has a lot of those same attributes,” he continued. “It doesn’t seem like anything fazes him. He’s very bright. He’s extremely respectful and his parents are obviously a big part of his life. Those are great traits for that young man. … I’m a believer, I really am. I think the world of the kid.”
Darnold is experiencing the growing-pains stage. As Esiason said, “There’s nothing harder in sports, I’m telling you, than being a rookie quarterback who is successful.” Darnold raised the outside expectation level with his storybook victory in Detroit. Since then, it has been a weekly reality check — a 54 percent completion rate, with two touchdowns, four interceptions and only 670 yards in the past three games, all losses.
If Darnold were a veteran, he’d be in danger of getting benched, but the Jets aren’t operating under a traditional meritocracy, at least not at the quarterback position. They will ride it out, correcting his mistakes and embracing the positives. In the loss to the Jaguars he was aggressive, attempting five passes that traveled at least 20 yards in the air.
Bowles liked that.
“It’s something we talked about,” he said. “We know we need to take more chunk shots down the field and get some big plays or at least back some people up. That was encouraging. We just have to connect on them.”