Sam Darnold

USA TODAY Images

Lichtenstein: With Broadway Joe Watching, Darnold Shines In Act 1 Of His Own Story

Has Most Complete Skill Set Of Any Jets QB Since Namath

Steve Lichtenstein
October 15, 2018 - 9:47 am
Categories: 

When Joe Namath waxes poetic over a young Jets quarterback, you have to take it with a grain of salt.

He’s been doing it for more than 40 years, be it over Richard Todd, Ken O’Brien, Chad Pennington or Mark Sanchez, to name a few of many in the long line of failed Jets signal-callers since Namath pointed to the Miami sky that magical January day in 1969.

Watch every Jets game season this season with fuboTV -- click to start free trial now

Namath, the obvious headliner when the Jets paid tribute to the 50th anniversary of that Super Bowl championship team at halftime Sunday, didn’t guarantee that rookie Sam Darnold would be the one to finally lead the franchise back to glory, but Namath does believe the rookie has the tools to do it.

This time, I don’t think Namath is exaggerating.

I’ve been hesitant to get too excited over Darnold, 21, because I’ve seen so many Jets quarterbacks flame out since I started rooting for this team in the early 1970s. Anyone remember Browning Nagle and how awesome he looked in the 1992 preseason?

However, I am ready to go out on a limb now and state that Darnold has the most complete set of skills of any Jets quarterback I’ve seen in that span. 

LISTEN: Boomer Esiason 'Amazed' By Darnold's Play

Darnold doesn’t have Namath’s or even Vinny Testaverde’s arm, but it’s strong enough to make all the throws in the current offense. In a 42-34 win at MetLife Stadium on Sunday, Darnold threaded balls into seams in the Colts’ Cover 2 defense all game. A week ago, he beat the more aggressive Broncos over the top three times with perfect deep throws that only his receivers could get to. 

He doesn’t have Pennington’s accuracy on the shorter routes, but he’s hit on over 60 percent of his passes in four of his six games, including a 24-of-30 outing Sunday. That was the first time a Jets QB finished with an 80 percent completion rate on at least 30 attempts since Pennington in 2007, per ESPN’s Rich Cimini.

Darnold doesn’t look like he’s the most athletic guy out there, but he has proven to be elusive on numerous occasions, extending plays to find receivers downfield or tucking it in for short gains. Either way, his eyes are always scanning the field.

That’s part of his most impressive trait -- his processing ability. It’s what held back so many of the Jets’ recent holders of this most mentally challenging position. Sanchez and Geno Smith were absolutely dreadful in this area. You could count on them to make the same mistakes every week, precisely because they had no clue what they were looking at.

MORE: Jets' Enunwa Leaves Game With Ankle Injury

Darnold is going to make mistakes, like his force downfield toward wide receiver Robbie Anderson that was intercepted by Colts safety Malik Hooker in the first quarter. That’s just what rookie quarterbacks do.

But you can see Darnold learning from experience. The Colts provided a test of patience, baiting Darnold to take more shots when the less-sexy underneath routes were open.

“(The Colts defense) was a bend-but-don't-break type of defense, where they try to keep everything in front of them” Jets left tackle Kelvin Beachum said. “(Darnold) took what the defense gave him, and he found a way to make plays.”

To me, the final 42 seconds of the first half cemented the deal. The Jets took over on their own 28-yard line with two timeouts and leading 20-13. Normally, you can bank on Jets coach Todd Bowles going conservative in this type of spot, especially knowing that his team would start the third quarter with the ball.

Instead, Darnold connected on four consecutive throws, the last a 22-yard strike to wide receiver Jermaine Kearse in the middle of the field. Though the play got the Jets to the Colts’ 14-yard line, they were out of timeouts and the clock was still ticking with under 10 seconds to go.

“Our guys in the huddle, before the play even starts, I’m like, ‘Hey, if I complete a ball inbounds, we gotta go and clock it,’” Darnold said. “I previewed it with the guys, so from that standpoint, we were ready. I just completed it, made sure we had enough time on the clock, make sure everyone was set and spiked the ball.”

That last part was especially telling for such a young player, many of whom would have lacked the poise necessary to manage the game in such an adrenaline-fueled situation.  Darnold not only got his offense lined up, you could see that he looked left and then he looked right to make sure everyone was set, for any illegal procedure penalty would have had a 10-second runoff attached, thereby ending the half.

After the spike, Jason Myers kicked the third of his franchise record-setting seven field goals (per Cimini, his 274 total field goal yards were the most in any one game in NFL history) to send the Jets into the locker room ahead by 10 points. The Jets then opened the second half with a five-play, 72-yard drive that culminated in a 32-yard touchdown strike from Darnold to wide-open tight end Chris Herndon. The Colts made numerous attempts to come back, but the Jets offense put up field goals on each of its remaining four possessions until Darnold’s kneel-downs after the two-minute warning.

Bowles said this was a game the 3-3 Jets would not have won last season, or even earlier this season. Before we get ahead of ourselves about what this means for this season, Darnold will surely have to battle through more valleys in the coming weeks. But what’s important is that there is now evidence to believe that he will come out of them a better player. You can see why general manager Mike Maccagnan delivered three second-round picks to the Colts to move up three slots to the third overall in April’s draft and then was absolutely giddy when Darnold fell to him. 

This team is starting to take on Darnold’s personality. It’s never going to be Broadway Joe’s, but it doesn’t have to be.    

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