There was a famous moment back in 2007, about two months before the Giants won the Super Bowl, when Eli Manning was struggling and the critics were piling on. His own general manager was one of them, publicly calling the young quarterback “skittish.”
It was harsh, but it was accurate. And the same description seems to apply to Sam Darnold now.
That’s the way the third-year quarterback looked on Sunday, in the Jets’ 27-17 loss to the Buffalo Bills. A review of the game film – particularly all 41 times he dropped back to pass – showed a quarterback under pressure, forcing throws, throwing off his back feet, making some poor throws and poor decisions and occasionally reacting to a rush that wasn’t there.
And the numbers reflected it. Forget the final numbers -- 21 of 35, 215 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions – because that includes an 8-for-9, 58-yard performance in the two-minute drill at the end of the game, with the Bills defense laying back to protect a 17-point lead. Before that, Darnold was just 13 for 26, for 157 yards – and 69 of those yards were on a touchdown pass that was thrown to the line of scrimmage before his receiver, Jamison Crowder, did the rest.
That’s ugly, and it looked just as bad when reviewing the film.
Darnold called his issues “fixable” and the 23-year-old is probably right. It’s also not all his fault. Some of the blame can be shared by Adam Gase and his play-calling. It didn’t help that his offensive line struggled, too.
Here are just a few of the things that went wrong:
1. Darnold constantly looked rushed, sometimes out of necessity, and sometimes just when he anticipated a pass rush coming. Sometimes that’s referred to as “Happy Feet,” when his first instinct is to move instead of standing strong in the pocket.
2. An off-shoot of that is that he threw far too often off his back foot, including a couple of times when he seemed to be hopping during his throwing motion. Those are bad mechanics, obviously, but it indicates he’s either rushing or leaning back anticipating a pass rush in his face.
3. Some of that was justified. There was a lot of pressure leaking through and around the Jets’ new-look offensive line. There were only a handful of throws where he had a clean pocket, which isn’t surprising considering the line has been completely rebuilt, didn’t have any preseason games to work together, and they were facing a talented and dangerous Buffalo Bills front.
4. There was no creativity in the play-calling against the blitzes. Gase had to know they were coming, but most of the time it looked like the plan was just for Darnold to panic and dump the ball off. Their one other strategy for handling that seemed to be wide receiver “bubble screens,” but they overused them and the Bills were ready almost every time. Where were the regular screens and quick slants or play-action to keep the Bills off balance?
5. Speaking of anti-blitz strategies … One of Darnold’s strengths is supposed to be his ability to create plays outside of the pocket, but he didn’t get outside nearly enough – and, it seemed, rarely by design. Getting him on the move is a good way to stretch out the defense and the Jets need to do it more.
6. Don’t underestimate the lack of weapons around him, because on many of these plays it’s not like he had a lot of options. Receivers, in general, weren’t open. He also was the victim of two terrible drops by Crowder, his supposed No. 1 receiver.