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Early results proving Sam Darnold wasn’t the problem in New York

Sam Darnold
Sam Darnold and Zach Wilson meet at midfield after the Panthers defeated the Jets in Week 1. (Channelle Smith-Walker, Carolina Panthers)

After three years, 38 games, and 13 wins, the New York Jets chose to pull the plug on franchise-quarterback-turned-scapegoat Sam Darnold. New York dealt the former third overall pick to Carolina during the offseason and started from scratch, drafting BYU quarterback Zach Wilson with the second selection in the 2021 NFL Draft.

And at the time, it seemed like a savvy move. Darnold was approaching the end of his rookie contract, he hadn’t displayed nearly enough to warrant an extension, and the Jets, it could be argued, had gone backwards since the former USC signal caller traded in his scarlet and gold for green and white. Darnold’s quality of play was low. The morale among the Jets fanbase was lower. So when Joe Douglas finally chose to make the move and cut ties with the man that was supposed to bring the Jets back to the top of the AFC, fans were relieved – an escape from a project that had, by all major metrics, failed miserably.

But if Darnold’s start to the 2021 season with Carolina – and, conversely, the opening games of Wilson’s career as a Jet – are any indication, the picture that Jets fans were hoping to avoid becomes more and more clear with each passing week: Darnold was never the problem in East Rutherford, and the issues that plague the Jets offense go much deeper than just the man under center.

There was perhaps no sweeter way for both Sam Darnold and the Jets to start their 2021 seasons – by standing opposite each other on the sidelines. The Jets travelled to Darnold’s new home in Carolina for Week 1, giving them the chance to prove, at least in the early stages, that their decision to move on from Darnold was the right one. And while Darnold repeatedly claimed that he didn’t view it as a revenge game, you’d be naïve to think it wasn’t at least in the back of his mind.

And while it was only one game, it’s perhaps the clearest indicator that Darnold – even with all his rushed throws, turnovers, and ghost sightings in primetime – wasn’t as much the instigator as he was the victim during his time with New York.

From when he first arrived at 1 Jets Drive in 2018 to when he jumped on a flight to Charlotte six months ago, two major personnel questions followed like a persistent storm cloud over Sam Darnold’s tenure as the Jets starting quarterback. The front office was unable to give him real weapons and he was consistently let down by abysmal offensive line play.

Statistically, the Jets had one of the worst offensive lines in the league in the three years during which they protected Darnold. The problems were the ugliest in 2019, a season in which Darnold was the most pressured quarterback in the league, took the fourth most sacks, and was hurried more than anyone else in the NFL. Aside from Robby Anderson, his primary weapons that year were an ineffective Le’Veon Bell, a 32-year-old Demaryius Thomas, and Jamison Crowder.

And while Darnold can’t be completely absolved for his poor numbers, hindsight suggests that perhaps it was foolish to expect a second-year quarterback to find success in an offense as depraved as that one was.

Compare that with what we’re seeing from Darnold now, surrounded by one of the most dangerous playmaking corps in the league and an offensive line that has simply been serviceable so far. He went for 279 passing yards and 2 total touchdowns against his former employer in Week 1, leading the Panthers to a 19-14 win. He threw for over 300 yards in both games that followed, only one of his passes has been intercepted, and, most importantly, Carolina is 3-0.

And Matt Rhule hasn’t reinvented the wheel with Darnold, either. The tools that made him such a hot prospect in the summer of 2018 – impressive arm strength, field reading capability, pocket mobility – are still on full display. The only difference is now, he’s got a line that gives him time to go through his reads and a group of receivers that can consistently make plays.

As for Zach Wilson’s start to life in East Rutherford, it started bad and got worse. While it’s a completely fair assessment to say that Wilson is a better prospect out of college than Darnold was (and it’s an assessment that I’d agree with), he’s struggling with the same issues that ultimately got Darnold booted out of the Big Apple. A quarterback heralded for his mobility and impressive arm strength is hardly getting a chance to show it because his pocket collapses almost immediately after snap. Sure-handed receivers are dropping passes that hit them in the hands. Poor blocking from the offensive line, a weak receiving corps, underwhelming quarterback play. Rinse, wash, repeat.

And like Darnold, the shortcomings elsewhere in the offense doesn’t fully absolve Wilson, either. His four-interception performance against the Patriots was, by all accounts, abysmal. Wilson will tell you that himself. But if you’re looking to diagnose the Jets offense as a whole, you can’t discuss the four interceptions without also mentioning the four sacks, four hurries, and nine pressures.

I understand the season has still only just begun. Trophies aren’t handed out at the end of Week 3. And while this may be entirely too reactionary, I think the central point still holds true: if the Jets front office thinks that replacing the man under center will fix an offense that has been defunct for the last half-decade, they are looking in all the wrong places. And while Wilson may end up having the better Jets career of the two, it remains true that Sam Darnold wasn’t the reason why the Jets offense was always one of the worst in the league when he was taking snaps.

That much has been made obvious after just twelve quarters of football.

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