By Steve Silverman
Sam Darnold will be under center when the Jets open their season at Detroit next Monday night. But, there’s a big difference between winning the audition and succeeding in training camp and becoming a top-notch NFL regular-season quarterback.
Darnold isn’t going to come into the NFL and dominate, because nobody does that in their rookie season. Rookie quarterbacks, in particular, are limited in what they can do at the start of their career. Quarterbacks like Dan Marino and Peyton Manning started from the beginning of their careers and they are two of the all-time greats in the history of the sport.
Neither was anything close to the quarterback they were in Year One that they were in Year 2 or Year 3 of their careers. Marino had a solid rookie year in which threw for 2,210 yards with 20 touchdowns and six interceptions in 1983, but he grew exponentially the next season when he threw for a league-leading 5,084 yards with 48 TDs and 17 interceptions.
Manning was entrenched in the job as a rookie in 1998 when he threw for 3,730 yard with 26 touchdowns and 28 interceptions. He was much better the following year as he threw for 4,135 yards with 26 touchdowns and 15 interceptions.
The biggest exception to the rule of a rookie quarterback struggling is Dak Prescott of the Dallas Cowboys. Prescott was expecting to be no more than a backup to Tony Romo when he was drafted out of Mississippi State in 2017. However, when Romo suffered a severe back injury, Prescott took advantage of his chance by throwing for 3,667 yards, completing 67.8 percent of his passes with 23 touchdowns and just four interceptions. He also ran for six touchdowns.
Prescott’s case was a special one though as he played behind one of the best offensive lines in football and he had a spectacular running game with Ezekiel Elliott. The Jets have neither of these things, so predicting greatness for Darnold in Year 1 is unlikely.
But the No. 3 overall pick in this year’s draft has quite a bit of talent and there is a road to success for him this season. Start off with Darnold’s mobility, and the talent to buy time with his feet when protection breaks down.
Not only can Darnold get away from the initial pass rush, he excels at throwing on the move. When Darnold rolls to his right and throws on the run, he is quite accurate and sharp in his delivery.
That sharpness means that Darnold can limit his turnovers in his first season. He is not likely to be wild in his delivery as his accuracy was quite good at USC and an area of strength in preseason games and practice.
He does have a history of fumbling the ball and losing his grip on the ball as a college quarterback, but he has taken steps in that area this summer. He has been keeping two hands on the ball, but we’ll see if that continues in actual regular season game action. This is one of the biggest question marks during the first two or three games of the season.
There are many factors when it comes to being successful as a rookie quarterback, but one of the best things Darnold can do is complete one or two deep balls at the start of every game. If he can do that, he can spread opposing defenses out and tone down the pass rush quite a bit. If he can’t, opponents can forget about the deep game, and go after the young quarterback. That will almost certainly lead to the turnovers that Darnold must avoid.
Darnold has to adapt to the NFL and he must understand that depending on his legs to advance the cause of the team is a double-edged sword. Yes, he can keep drives alive by picking up first downs with his legs, but he will put himself at risk if he runs too often. There’s nothing wrong with running with the ball, but he needs to run out of bounds and avoid contact even when he thinks that he could spin out of a tackle and make extra yardage.
Darnold’s demeanor is a huge issue. When he finds success, he must act like a veteran quarterback who knows the next play is coming. The same thing may be even more important after failure. He cannot get down on himself after an interception or a fumble.
If he can use these factors as jumping-off points, Darnold has a chance to be the quarterback the Jets have been wanting for decades.
The tryout is over and Darnold has been successful. Now, he must take the next steps, and those are not likely to be easy ones.