“Hell, he’s so beat up, it’s hard to tell what he’s like. I just can’t help feeling they got him so screwed up running in a circle, he’s forgotten what he was born to do.”
The above dialogue was penned for the movie “Seabiscuit” about the legendary racehorse, but I see some parallels with Sam Darnold.
The Jets quarterback has not shown he has taken any strides forward in the first two games of his third NFL season, including Sunday’s dispiriting 31-13 loss to San Francisco at injury-cursed Met Life Stadium. With the Jets needing to decide after the season whether to bet the farm by exercising Darnold’s fifth-year option or else maneuver for the opportunity to select their new face of the franchise in the 2021 Draft, time is running short.
Now, Sunday’s shellacking was equal parts offense and defense, with New York suffering the ignominy of an untouched 80-yard Raheem Mostert touchdown scamper on the first play of the game and an incomprehensible 55-yard Jerick McKinnon run on a third quarter third-and-31. Between all the missed tackles, coverage breakdowns, and senseless penalties, defensive coordinator Gregg Williams should still be in his office going over the game film.
When looking at the big picture on any NFL team, however, you always have to start with the quarterback question. If nothing else, this Jets season has to produce a definitive view on Darnold.
Unfortunately, that picture is still muddied. In many ways, Darnold is regressing. As it is with many dilemmas, however, is this nature or nurture?
Gang Green traded three second-round picks to move up to the third slot in the 2018 Draft so they could select their figurative thoroughbred, then they planted him in a losing culture now entrenched under Dead Man Walking coach Adam Gase that seems to have Darnold beaten into the ground.
For the second consecutive week, the Jets needed a garbage-time touchdown drive just to break 200 yards in total offense. Before that, Darnold was 15-of-26 for an anemic 103 yards. Part of that comes from the fact that Darnold barely throws the ball past the line of scrimmage anymore – only six QBs posted fewer than his six air yards per attempt in Week 1, per NFL NextGenStats, and his 4.5 air yards per attempt on Sunday was a league low.
Certainly, the Jets’ abhorrent depth at wide receiver was a factor, as Gase dressed just four receivers, with both Jamison Crowder and rookie Denzel Mims inactive. So, when Breshad Perriman (ankle) was lost for the game during the second quarter, and Chris Hogan (ribs) missed some second-half possessions, Darnold only had slot receiver Braxton Berrios and practice squad call-up Josh Malone (seven career receptions in three seasons) for those drives.
Still, the Jets’ wounded list paled in comparison to the 49ers’ in both quantity and quality. San Francisco flew cross-country for the early game without two 2019 All-Pros (tight end George Kittle and cornerback Richard Sherman) and big-play receiver Deebo Samuel, and then watched in horror as elite edge rusher Nick Bosa, defensive lineman Solomon Thomas, Mostert, and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo all crumpled onto the new stadium turf by halftime.
What didn’t help the frustration was seeing, even after backup QB Nick Mullens took over, San Francisco’s no-name wideouts still running their third-down routes past the first-down markers, while Darnold typically checked down to receivers on hot routes well short of the sticks, whether or not the incoming pass rush pressure was indeed hot. Were those Gase calls or Darnold audibles? The abundance of sideline bubble screens, which have yet to work this season except for the one Crowder took 69 yards to the house in Buffalo, surely seemed like Gase give-ups.
Also plausible is that Darnold is attempting to follow Gase’s principles of playing more of a low-risk game. Though he was turnover-free on Sunday, Darnold’s career, even at USC, is chock full of poor throwing decisions into areas with defenders primed for picks. Darnold’s strength, though, is moving around and making off-schedule plays. He has a bit of a gunslinger mentality, only Gase wants him to keep it in his holster.
In the past, I’ve delved into how Gase, the supposed quarterback guru, does little to help Darnold by disdaining motion, play-action, varied personnel packages, and easy QB sneaks on fourth-and-one. He’s so conservative that he still hasn’t gotten it through his head that giving a quarterback two shots with 10 or more yards to go gives you better odds of getting a new set of downs than just one shot after a short gain from a second-down run.
That doesn’t excuse Darnold, who simply has to be better at his job. The Jets’ revamped offensive line isn’t the hot mess from last season (the 49ers registered just one sack on 34 dropbacks), yet Darnold is playing as if he’s shellshocked. When looking at the Buffalo film, you’ll see several plays that could have been made if he just moved off his first read.
There will come a point – which might come as soon as after the next two games against Indianapolis and Denver – where none of this will matter anymore. If the Jets start 0-4 with Darnold unable to correct the missed reads and mechanical flaws in his footwork that are hampering his performances, then the best thing for the Jets would be to decide right then to move on.
That’s right, Jets fans; we can give this team two more games before we again contemplate the dreaded “T” word.
Only this time, it is imperative that the organization tanks correctly.
Remember those glorious victories against Buffalo at the end of three of the last four seasons? Neither do I. If the desired target is Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence, however, the consequences from a reprise in 2020 would be devastating.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Devils and Jets, follow Steve Lichtenstein on Twitter: @SteveLichtenst1