Hyped Rookie Quarterback Is Maturing Before Our Very Eyes, Despite Having A Supporting Cast That Often Leaves A Lot To Be Desired

By Jeff Capellini
CBSNewYork.com

The score and the stat line suggest Sam Darnold didn’t do much during the Jets’ pathetic showing in Chicago on Sunday.

Call it another example of the numbers not quite telling the story.

In a season that really should be about nothing more than how the franchise’s presumed savior adapts to life in the NFL, we can’t help ourselves. We’re morons. We expect the Jets to at least show up each week. You know, like a respectable professional sports franchise.

But what we saw against the Bears was typical of the Jets on many levels.

The Jets showed a lack of discipline with an insane number of pre-snap penalties. They proved once again to be paper tigers on defense, spitting the bit at the worst possible time in the second half. Their offensive coordinator did everything in his power to put an undue amount of pressure on said defense. Their head coach was left grasping at old cliches during the postgame talk with reporters.

You’ve seen this so many times in the past, it’s probably not all that surprising.

I know the Jets have a million injuries, but it doesn’t give them the right to wave the white flag, starting with the opening possession. It was as if Bowles and Bates were content to simply get reps in, use the game as a working practice. Hey, let’s make sure we have an overall 50/50 run-pass ratio down big in the fourth. That’ll surely get the message across.

My question is, what message?

Sam Darnold

Jets quarterback Sam Darnold looks to pass against the against the Bears during the first quarter at Soldier Field on Oct. 28, 2018 in Chicago. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

The bottom line is the Jets are 3-5 for the third straight season, and we all know how the first two ended. At this point, it’s hard to believe this team will make a run at anything more than six or seven wins, which, of course, would be an improvement over the 2016 and ’17 seasons. But it would feel sort of hollow given how these guys have lost the games they’ve lost, and are likely to continue to lose going forward.

The Jets are simply horrendous on the road, not even competitive the majority of the time. Sure, you can look back at the opener in Detroit as this impressive accomplishment, but the bloom fell off that rose during the three-game losing streak that followed. It was a stretch that featured pathetic road losses at Cleveland and Jacksonville, teams, as we have found out, that cannot get out of their own way.

The Jets play better at home, but it’s all just a tease. They blew the game against Miami in Week 2, collapsed in the second half against Minnesota in Week 7 and the teams they have beaten, Denver and Indianapolis, have the same record they do and will almost certainly suffer the same non-playoffs fate.

I know I’ve written it before, but it’s worth repeating: the only thing Jets fans need care about is Darnold’s progress. Trust me, there will be plenty of time to talk about Bowles’ job security as the autumn leaves morph into biting winter winds. For now, it has to be about the kid from southern California, who has learned a ton already and, let’s be honest, has not embarrassed himself.

Yes, I took a lot of positives out of his performance on Sunday. While it’s true, he only completed 14 of 29 passes for 153 yards, he did manage to throw a touchdown and didn’t turn the ball over. Also, he was only sacked once. But before you give kudos to the offensive line for the protection, please realize Darnold mostly ran for his life all afternoon. But it was his decision making while on the run that stood out.

Most young QBs tend to force things, try to make something happen. Darnold has also been guilty of this at times during the season, but on Sunday he looked like a much older and smarter quarterback. He threw the ball away when he had nothing — and he had nothing a lot because there was no creativity with the play-calling, the receivers looked completely overmatched on predictable routes and the offensive line struggled to contain an opponent that was actually missing Khalil Mack, arguably the best pass rusher in the NFL.

Considering the adversity he faced, it was a major moment in Darnold’s maturation process.

And that continues a trend. Though Darnold was thrown into the fire as the youngest quarterback to start an NFL season, he has already come a long way. While I’ll readily admit his traditional numbers are not eye popping, they aren’t terrible either, given the many problems with this team’s talent, coaching and health.

It’s really not fair to Darnold to look at his stats with the same eyes used to scrutinize the majority of starting quarterbacks league-wide. The Jets have been without their best receiver, Quincy Enunwa, for basically half the season, yet he still leads the team in receptions, with 22. His 287 receiving yards are just 27 less than team leader Robby Anderson, who, himself, missed the game against the Bears and has not exceeded three catches in any game he has played in. The chemistry with a new QB simply takes time.

Terrelle Pryor, who was counted on to stretch the field after signing a one-year deal in the offseason, is no longer on the team. Jermaine Kearse is a savvy veteran who has great hands and a knack for getting open, but won’t be confused with a deep threat any time soon and is probably better suited as a role player for a contender. It’s way too early to make any kind of an assessment on newcomer Rishard Matthews, who was signed off the street last week.

Rookie tight end Chris Herndon’s play has been encouraging, as evidenced by his touchdown receptions in three consecutive games. Deontay Burnett’s play on Sunday was also a bright spot, but what does it tell you when a guy who literally comes out of nowhere leads your team with just four catches and 61 yards?

So, yeah, Darnold really has nobody to throw to currently, short of Kearse and Herndon, but neither of them are going to tip the scales in any of these games.

Knowing all that, I am excusing Darnold for his 55.2 completion percentage and 74.5 overall rating. I think the fact that he has more TD passes (11) than interceptions (10) through half the season is nothing short of a miracle.

Remember this: There’s a who’s who list of quarterbacks, some now in the Hall of Fame, others well thought of, that were utter disasters as NFL freshmen. You know who is on that list? Peyton Manning (56.7 percent completion, 28 INTs in 1998), Troy Aikman (52.9 percent, 9 TDs, 18 INTs in 11 games in 1989), John Elway (47.5 percent, 7 TDs, 14 INTs in 11 games in 1983), Dan Fouts (44.8 percent, 6 TDs, 13 INTs in parts of 10 games in 1973) and Terry Bradshaw (38.1 percent, 24 INTs in parts of 13 games in 1970).

So, the moral of the story is not everyone is Andrew Luck or Pat Mahomes right out of the gate.

As they often do, the Jets have set sail south. This time around, it’s their quarterback who has been left on that island, seemingly all alone. Just keep an eye on how he handles the little things the rest of the way because more than the numbers, his poise, decision making and overall football IQ will tell the story.

He’s the right guy. God help the AFC East down the road if the Jets ever get him some help.

Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @JCapGLJ