The 2018 NFL season has introduced us to an exciting and potential-filled class of young quarterbacks. All five quarterbacks drafted in the first round this year are now starting for their teams, or were starting prior to injury. Such was the case with Josh Allen in Buffalo until recently and now Sam Darnold for the New York Jets. Baker Mayfield has clearly laid claim to the starting role over Tyrod Taylor in Cleveland, and Lamar Jackson, though technically filling in for the injured Joe Flacco, is already starting to turn heads and the Ravens will have some serious decisions to make about the future of the quarterback position in Baltimore. But out of all these players, the only one to take hold of the starting job from opening day was Sam Darnold. We will take a look at how his first season has gone, along with what helped make him the Jets number one pick.
Sam Darnold Career Overview
Sam Darnold's career got off to a blistering start with a sparkling performance in prime-time against the Detroit Lions on Monday Night Football. After his first career pass was picked off and returned for a touchdown by Detroit's Quandre Diggs, he settled in and led the Jets to a 48-17 victory in a nationally televised game. This led to a lot of conversation the next day from sports talk media all across the country. He made a big impression quickly and here are a few things people were talking about:
His Ability to Overcome Adversity
There is no doubt that the result of Sam Darnold's first ever pass in the NFL couldn't have been any worse, an interception returned for a touchdown. But the young gun-slinger from USC showed poise and mindfulness by immediately brushing it off and getting ready for the next series. Any coach at any level can tell you one of the most important characteristics of a good quarterback is a short memory. He can't dwell on mistakes and he can't glory in his successes. He has to forget about the last drive, regardless of the outcome and focus on the play right in front of him.
His Leadership Skills
While many young quarterbacks may have been too busy pouting or feeling down about such a big mistake so early, Darnold was seen pumping up teammates and assuring them they would get those points back. His charisma and maturity were on full display as he rallied his offense for the coming possession. Although they were stopped on that drive, Darnold would lead them to a game-tying touchdown on the next drive. After a Jets interception on the next Lions possession, he would lead another scoring drive for a field goal, which gave New York their first lead en route to the blowout.
He Is Built for the Big Stage
One of the biggest concerns about playing in New York is how an individual will deal with all the pressure that comes from increased media scrutiny and constant national attention. Even established sports stars have had their careers seriously derailed by being traded to teams in the New York market. The media is especially fierce, the fans have very little patience, and whatever sport you play there is a rival right across town that you are being compared to. But Sam Darnold seems to shine brightest in the biggest moments as shown by his accomplishments at USC.
It goes without saying that there are a lot of expectations for the football program at USC. They have been a perennial powerhouse in college football and the fact that they have slipped up a little bit since the Pete Carroll era only adds to the alumni and fan bases' desire to return to national prominence. After sitting out his true freshman season in 2015 as a redshirt, he started the 2016 season as the backup to Max Browne. Although he was number two on the depth chart, he still saw limited action in the first three games of the season. After a 1-2 start to the season, head coach Clay Helton made the decision to start Sam Darnold in week four on the road against Utah. USC lost a nail-biter to the Utes 31-27. After that, the Trojans would go on to win their next nine games, including an upset over No.4 Washington who went on to the College Football Playoff. Here is a recap of Darnold's time at USC:
2017 Rose Bowl vs. No.5 Penn State
Sam Darnold capped off his brilliant performance during the 2016 season with a highlight reel clinic against the Nittany Lions at the Rose Bowl. Penn State won the Big Ten Championship that season and just barely missed a Playoff berth by a razor-thin margin according to the College Football Playoff Committee. The committee instead gave the nod to Ohio State, having lost only one game that season, as opposed to a two-loss Penn State, even though they beat the Buckeyes on the field earlier in the year. The decision was highly controversial, and the Nittany Lions came to Pasadena looking to show the committee they made the wrong choice.
The game was a back-and-forth slugfest from the opening whistle. It was one of the most exciting and entertaining games of the bowl season, breaking multiple records. It became the highest scoring Rose Bowl in history with 101 total points, shattering the old record of 83 points set in 2012. The ending would prove to be every bit as thrilling as the rest of the game, with Sam Darnold putting together two amazing drives. Down by two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, Darnold would lead USC storming back to tie the game, going a perfect 10 for 10 passing in the process. The Trojans would win the game 52-49, on a field goal as time expired.
Sam Darnold Fills the Trophy Case
The 2016 season brought numerous awards to Sam Darnold as he established himself as one of the premier quarterbacks in college football. The fact that he was a redshirt freshman only made it more impressive. Some of the more prestigious awards Darnold brought home that year were the Archie Griffin Award, given to the nation's most valuable player over the entire season and bowls. He also won USC's Most Inspirational Player Award and the Bob Chandler Award (underclassman with outstanding athletic ability, academic achievement and character). Darnold was also awarded the Pac-12 Freshmen Offensive Player of the Year. He capped off his award-filled season by winning the Rose Bowl Offensive Player of the Game trophy.
An Underwhelming 2017
Excitement and expectations were sky high heading into the next season for USC. The Trojans were ranked number two in the preseason polls behind only Alabama. Thoughts of a Playoff appearance and possible national title were already being talked about on campus and in the media. But Darnold would seemingly take a step back and struggle significantly in his second act, and the aspirations held by fans and talking heads alike would quickly fade. A closer look at the circumstances would show that this was due in part to multiple obstacles the program faced that season. Darnold was forced to break in a new receiving core as a result of several graduations in the offseason. He also had to deal with multiple injuries to the offense, and some highly questionable play calling and coaching decisions. Despite all the setbacks, he still led USC to the Pac-12 Championship before losing to Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl.
Sam Darnold Stats & Progression
Darnold's career is still very much in its infancy. It's hard to sum up his performance up to this point relying solely on statistics and numbers. Injuries on the offensive line and at the running back position also skew the numbers against him as the Jets have had to rely far too much on the passing game while developing the young signal caller. Also, the fact that Darnold hasn't played since week 10 due to a foot injury that became known between games, makes us question how long he may have been playing with that injury. With that being said, here is look at his 2018 stats:
While Darnold's numbers are average at best, it doesn't come close to telling the whole story. He has shown flashes of brilliance and a high football IQ numerous times throughout the season. The Jets have done him very few favors in the way of personal help. He has had very little to work with this season in the way of wide receivers, and the running backs which were supposed to help take pressure off of the passing game have had a difficult time staying healthy. The book is still open on exactly what Sam Darnold can be at the NFL level. It remains to be seen if he will even play again this year (which may not be a bad thing). He could definitely benefit from some time on the sidelines, watching a veteran like Josh McCown run the offense. One thing is for sure, there is still plenty of reason to be excited about what is going on in New York, and to have plenty of optimism about where this young man can take the Jets.