Jets quarterback Sam Darnold attempts a pass against the Washington Redskins on Aug. 16, 2018, at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland.

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Lichtenstein: QB-Starved Jets All In On Darnold This Season

Expect Some Highs, Lows In Rookie Season

Steve Lichtenstein
September 04, 2018 - 12:56 pm
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Get ready, New York. It’s Darnold time.

Jets coach Todd Bowles finally copped to the obvious after Monday’s practice, announcing that rookie first-round pick (third overall) Sam Darnold would be under center when the 2018 season kicks off in Detroit on Monday night.

Once Teddy Bridgewater was shipped to New Orleans last week, the Jets had no other recourse. The fans would have lit MetLife Stadium on fire if 39-year-old Josh McCown was named the starter after the Jets traded away their most qualified quarterback.

This Jets season just became about only one thing -- Darnold’s development.

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Bowles had an interesting choice of words when explaining his decision: “We’re starting him because he gives us a good chance to win the game."

Not the best chance, which is the standard Bowles learned in Coachspeak 101. 

Maybe that means we should lower the sky-high expectations just a bit for the 21-year-old Darnold, who will be the only rookie starting QB in Week 1 and the youngest ever to start a season-opening game. Jets general manager Mike Maccagnan dealt three second-round picks to Indianapolis in advance of the 2018 draft in order to land the franchise quarterback the fans have been so desperate to see.

Forget Joe Namath. The Jets haven’t had a merely above-average signal-caller since Vinny Testaverde in 1998.

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While Darnold’s youth allows us to imagine an infinite ceiling, count on it to create the normal high and low tides over the course of his rookie campaign. Probably a lot more low tides than high. The preseason stats (29-of-45, 244 yards, two touchdowns and one interception) are no predictor of what we will see when the games count.

However, certain attributes Darnold displayed in the preseason -- such as the speed of his progression processing, his mobility and his accuracy throwing on the run to either side of the field -- bode well for his development.

In the preseason, Darnold was possibly instructed to keep things simple, concentrating on managing the game without taking undo risks. He took very few shots down the field -- his longest connection went for 18 yards. His sole interception came on a forced fourth-down throw in Washington in the face of a heavy pass rush.

How Darnold handles the pressure of regular season games, especially in the fourth quarter of close contests, will be fascinating to watch. Many experts are wary of his overall inexperience, having played the position for only one full season in high school and two in college. Darnold was intercepted 13 times and lost nine fumbles in 14 games last season at USC.

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I previously wrote that my biggest concern with rushing Darnold into the fray was the potential shell shock from playing behind an erratic-at-best offensive line. Guard Brian Winters returned to action in the third preseason game, but blind-side tackle Kelvin Beachum sat out all preseason. Backup Brent Qvale played miserably in Beachum’s place.  Heaven forbid if the line is subject to further injuries.

There were instances in the preseason when Darnold seemed to be looking out for the rush first and ended up holding on to the ball too long. That’s normal for most young QBs in the league, but we’ve also seen how excess pressure has led directly to other bad habits.

Still, Darnold’s ascension has altered both the team’s identity and its mission for this season. While it will likely guarantee another losing campaign, the pain will be assuaged if Darnold exhibits improvement over the course of it. 

The Jets are all in on Darnold. However, it’s important to remember that even Namath needed a couple of years before he learned how to play the position properly at the pro level.

For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Devils and Jets, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.