By Vincent Fodera @Fodera80
When you watch Sam Darnold play Quarterback, one thing is clear- he has a special quality to him. The thing that’s not clear is the description of that special quality. Some people may call it the “it” factor, “he just has ‘it’.” However, in watching him over the first 21 games of his career, I’ve still seen too many flaws and inconsistencies to confidently call what he has that oh so valuable “it” factor. What I prefer to call it is an extemporaneous playmaking ability- the ability to make something out of nothing, the ability to turn a loss into again. To be fair, every star QB in the league with the “it” factor- your Watson’s, Mahomes’, Wentz’s, and Wilson’s- they all have that ability to improvise and make a play out of thin air. Watching Wilson and Mahomes scramble outside the pocket, evade a sack, then throwing a dime deep down the field. Seeing Wentz and Watson converting a critical 3rd down by almost magically getting a pass off while in the grasp of a pass rusher taking them down for a would be drive-killing sack. These are the type of plays that separate the upper echelon of throwers from the average starters, your Andy Dalton’s and Ryan Tannehill’s of the league. With that said, is it possible to have this ability, but still not have “it”? Is it possible to make these kind of plays, but not have the “it” factor that puts a player into the elite category? If it is possible, what makes up the difference?
As a Jets fan, I’ve been cursed with having to watch a long line of below-average to bad Quarterbacks manning the offense I watch every Sunday. I’m too young to remember Vinny Testaverde with any clarity, and Ken O’Brien was before my time. I do have fond memories of Chad Pennington when he was healthy, but for the past decade now, the Quarterback play has been more or less abysmal save for an outlier year by Ryan Fitzpatrick in 2015. Sam Darnold has been different. That playmaking ability is something I’ve never seen a Quarterback on my team have. I actually feel excited when the ball leaves his hand instead of nervous that it’s going to be intercepted. On the other hand, my past experiences with young promising Quarterbacks like Mark Sanchez and Geno Smith have led me to be gun shy. Do I trust what my eyes are seeing on the field? Do I trust my gut that something is missing from his game like the other ones? Or do I wait to make that determination when he has a better supporting cast and some more maturation under his belt? After all, he is still just 22 years old and has played the equivalent of less than a season and a half. I think my true answer lies in the for of an amalgamation of all three.
We return to the question however, what separates an extraordinary ability to make plays from the “it” factor? Since that’s what I’m wrestling with for Sam Darnold, what are the parts of his game that give me doubts? Over his career, I describe what I see from Sam Darnold as “streaky”. He has a hot stretch of games where he’s unflappable, then a bad game, followed by a stretch of mediocre games, followed by another hot streak. The lack of consistency is not anything new to me watching New York Jets Quarterbacks, and that's precisely what concerns me. The question is is this just a young Quarterback going through growing pains or is it a symptom of things to come. Darnold is currently in the midst of a hot streak. Outside of a few Interceptions that turned out harmless (more on that later), he’s been undeniably very good. Last week versus the Oakland Raiders, Darnold was 20/29 for 315 Yards and 2 Touchdown Passes. This is the 3rd time in his short career that Darnold has ad a 65% completion percentage, for over 300 yards and multiple touchdown passes. For QBs 22 years and younger since the 1970 NFL-AFL Merger, no player has put up those numbers in a game more times than Darnold. That tells me that even though he’s streaky, his hot streaks being as good as they are for as young as he is a better indicator of his trajectory than the early inconsistencies. The next part of Darnold’s game that causing me to pause is how often he throws interceptions. Darnold is averaging more than 1 interception per game with 25 over his first 21 games. That amount ranks 63rd all time in a field of 263 QBs to start 21 games since the Merger, meaning he’s thrown more Interceptions than over 75% of his peers since 1970. Obviously, that’s a concerning statistic, but is it one that dooms him to never reaching the promised land? Hall of Famers Brett Favre, Terry Bradshaw, Dan Fouts, and Troy Aikman all had more interceptions over their first 21 games. Additionally Superbowl winners Peyton and Eli Manning, Drew Bledsoe, and others all bested Darnolds interception mark. This isn’t to say that early career interception issues are a sign of brighter days to come of course, the list is also littered with notable busts such as Ryan Leaf, Mark Sanchez, and Blake Bortles, among others. However, this does mean that interceptions are not always a sign that things are going to get worse.
What concerns me the most about Darnold however, is the lack of a true statement performance and win. We’ve seen that the turnovers and inconsistencies can be overcome, but the thing that separates Darnold from the upper tier of QBs right now is that he hasn't beaten anybody that nobody thought he could, and he hasn’t really taken a game over ruly by himself. The best of the best in this league make you feel like they can win any game, no matter what the rest of their team is like. They can score to overcome a poor defense, they can raise the levels of poor supporting cast. Thus far in Darnold’s career, I feel that he’s played exactly to the talent level around him. Is that asking too much of a 22 year old QB? Possibly, but we see young QBs like Lamar Jackson, Patrick Mahomes, and Kyler Murray pulling out wins for their teams even though the players around them might not be top notch. Now, all three of these teams seem to have a better coaching situation than Darnold does as well- but at what point do we stop blaming the supporting cast and start looking at the player themselves? When do we stop forgiving the interceptions and cold streaks? I think it’s still too early for that with Darnold, and he still deserves the benefit of the doubt. There are a lot of positives to like with Sam Darnold and Jets fans should be excited, but I caution that until he makes a statement win and stops letting one-off bad games turn into multiple week cold streaks, we hold off on anointing him the second-coming. Darnold has a chance to do that this season with Thursday Night Primetime matchup visiting the Baltimore Ravens on December 12th for what could push this team into the hut for a Cinderella-story playoff push- if Darnold’s hot streak is more than just a streak.