Darnold, Jets Could Play Spoiler Vs. Patriots
By Karen Guregian
FOXBORO -- The New York Jets would love to give embattled head coach Todd Bowles a going-away present on Sunday by beating the New England Patriots. Better still, they’d love their kid quarterback to be the primary one doing the deed.
But is that too much of an expectation for Sam Darnold?
During the first nine weeks of the season, it would have been a reach to think Darnold could take down the Patriots. At that point in his development, Darnold was a rookie with talent who was making a ton of mistakes. Mostly, he was the interception king. After getting the nod as the Jets starter opening week, he was leading the league with 14 picks at Week 9. Then a foot injury sidelined him for four weeks.
But with the benefit of watching, observing and learning from the sideline, Darnold has been dynamite since returning.
He played very well Sunday in a losing effort against the Packers, going toe-to-toe with Aaron Rodgers. In the last two games, he’s thrown five touchdown passes and no interceptions. While the team appears headed for a coaching change, Darnold has been doing his best to end his rookie season on a positive note and provide some hope for the future.
Let’s just say Darnold stands as the final threat between the Patriots and holding onto the second seed. He’s gotten good to the point where he’s capable of being a spoiler.
Damien Woody, who’s been an offensive lineman for both the Patriots and Jets, has observed the rookie signal-caller all season and been impressed by the former USC star.
“He’s always been uber-talented. But when he takes care of the ball ... some of his throws are just crazy,” the ESPN analyst said when reached recently. “He’s really been playing well of late, especially considering the lack of talent he has around him.”
Darnold has thrown just one interception in the three games he’s played since coming back. Woody says his confidence level has soared during that time.
“I think when he was on the sideline, he saw the game from a different perspective. Since he’s been back, the game has slowed down for him. He’s not as jittery as he was earlier in the season,” said Woody. “This guy when he gets outside of the pocket, he’s special. The throws he makes on the move, they’re Aaron Rodgers-esque. That’s how good he is.”
Darnold doesn’t exactly have an all-world cast around him. The Jets haven’t bolstered his chances of success with a bevy of top-line receivers, tight ends or backs.
But with his talent, he’s gotten by with Robby Anderson as his primary go-to-guy at receiver, rookie Chris Herndon as another outlet at tight end, with Elijah McGuire catching balls out of the backfield.
“He’s taking what the defense gives him,” said Woody, “and when he gets outside the pocket, he makes throws that other quarterbacks can’t make.”
Patriots defensive play caller Brian Flores is well aware of what the 6-foot-3, 225 pound Darnold brings to the table. The Patriots are going to have their hands full given how well Darnold can throw in the pocket, as well as on the move.
“He’s very impressive, very talented,” said Flores. “He’s smart, got a big arm, is pretty mobile in the pocket ... he probably played his best game (against the Packers).”
The Jets haven’t beaten the Patriots at Gillette Stadium since 2010 in the AFC playoffs, with Rex Ryan as head coach and Mark Sanchez at QB.
Darnold didn’t play in the first meeting at MetLife Stadium Week 12, which was a 27-13 Patriots win.
The defensive players have noticed the transition, having watched film of Darnold from earlier in the year, to now. His quick release jumps off the screen but so do some other features.
“He’s gotten better. It seems like he’s calmed down a little bit. He’s making the right throws, making good decisions. He’s (playing) really fast,” said Patriots safety Patrick Chung. “He’s athletic enough to make plays. He’s definitely coming along. It seems like he’s grown up a bit. I’m not saying grown up in a bad way. He’s playing pro football. He’s a good quarterback.”
On the year as a whole, Darnold has thrown 17 TD passes with 15 interceptions. He’s cleaned up his act with respect to the latter.
While the Jets haven’t been able to keep teams from scoring, Darnold at least gives them a chance in games. He gives them a chance against the Patriots. They sure don’t want him to be the spoiler.
“We have to respect his capabilities,” said Trey Flowers. “We don’t want to allow him to buy time to make all those plays downfield.”