Running the numbers on Sam Darnold's slow start in the NFL
When New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold opened the season with a 48-17 beatdown of the Detroit Lions in primetime, fans were prepared to see more of the same from the rookie quarterback as the season progressed. But since then, the Jets’ offense has been held under 20 points in five of seven games, with Darnold struggling to complete passes and drive his team down the field. It’s early, but Darnold’s career has begun with inconsistency.
A stellar 85.0 percent adjusted completion percentage in Week 1 that was fifth in the league has crumbled into a 33rd-best adjusted completion percentage of 66.3 percent. A huge factor in that has been Darnold’s performance under pressure. In wins, Darnold is facing pressure on just 23.8 percent of snaps — ranking third-best out of 34 quarterbacks. But in losses, Darnold has faced pressure on 41.3 of snaps — ranking fifth-worst. He’s folded under pressure as most rookie quarterbacks do, posting a 41.7 passer rating, which ranks 33rd.
Asking a rookie to perform under such frequent pressure is difficult — but it has been done before. Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson was the most-pressured quarterback in 2017 before tearing his ACL, and he finished with an admirable 70.9 passer rating under pressure. Darnold’s rough start can be heavily attributed to his inability to do the same, but there are other facets that he’s faltered in as well. Even when in a clean pocket, Darnold has been far from satisfactory. An 80.2 passer rating on those throws ranks him as third-worst — so in truth, finding success under pressure should be the least of his concerns as he still struggles without it.
Darnold’s struggles are directly tied to his lack of pocket success. The best pocket passers on the year — Russell Wilson, Carson Wentz and Drew Brees — are established quarterbacks who have led their teams to Super Bowl appearances and victories. When Darnold is in the pocket for 2.6 seconds or more, he has an abysmal passer rating of 54.6, only better than fellow rookie Josh Allen.
For now, Darnold has found success only on mid-range throws (10-19 yards) down the middle and the left side of the field. On those throws, he’s completed 34 of 52 passes for six touchdowns, five interceptions and 621 yards — a passer rating of 105.2. On all other throws, he’s racked up a 67.2 passer rating. What that particularly means is debatable, but one thing is for sure: Darnold has defined so far by an inability to perform consistently.
For instance, on third down in three wins, he’s completed 16-of-22 passes for 13 first-down conversions. In five losses, he’s completed just 24-of-60 throws on third downs for 13 conversions. There’s a silver lining in the fact that Darnold has shown he’s capable of being the Jets’ quarterback of the future — but he still has a long way to go before that can ultimately be determined.
With all that compiled, Darnold has a 50.9 grade through nine weeks, which ranks 27th out of 27 qualifying quarterbacks. It hasn’t been pretty, and Darnold’s league-leading 14 interceptions haven’t been, either. His rough welcome to the NFL has been filled with some positives, but for now, the negatives are fully outweighing any signs of progress.