By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — From the moment that the New York Giants selected running back Saquon Barkley with the No. 2 overall pick in April’s draft, excitement for New York’s other team reached Sanchezian levels in Florham Park. The Golden Boy with the golden arm belonged to the Jets.
And when they selected Sam Darnold at No. 3 overall, the Jets truly believed they had made a franchise-altering decision. This narrative tale written by Albert Breer after the draft describes how the Jets’ braintrust — GM Mike Maccagnan, head coach Todd Bowles, Jets VP of player personnel Brian Heimerdinger, owner Christopher Johnson — seemingly came close to fainting when Darnold was available to them.
History may prove the Jets to be correct. But through three NFL games, Darnold doesn’t exactly look like a savior.
The young man could not even beat the Cleveland Browns.
Darnold on Thursday night earned the distinction of being the first quarterback to fail at beating the Browns since Philip Rivers and the Chargers (at the time, they were still the San Diego Chargers) on Dec. 24, 2016. Nineteen football weeks passed after that game, and the Browns could not muster a single win. Until Thursday.
And Darnold was a major reason why that drought is now over. The 21-year-old was somewhere between “very bad” and “dreadful” in the losing performance, completing 15 of 31 passes (48.4 percent) for 169 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. His passer rating was 38.2.
A closer look at the performance shows it was even worse than that. If you take out the eight screen passes Darnold threw, he was 9-for-23 (39.1 percent) for 106 yards and the two interceptions.
The highlight of Darnold’s night — a 12-yard connection to Jermaine Kearse to convert a fourth-and-10 that likely had Jets fans feeling that something special was happening — was followed immediately by the quarterback’s worst flub. On the next snap, Darnold stared down Kearse in almost the same spot of the field, but this time his pass was picked off by linebacker Joe Schobert.
For all intents and purposes, any hope for the Jets to win was extinguished with that pass.
But there was one more chance. The Jets took over at their own 6-yard line with 56 seconds left and no timeouts, trailing by four points. There was hope, and it was amplified when Darnold took advantage of a soft zone defense to connect with Terrelle Pryor for a gain of 25 yards to start the drive. Perhaps some Darnold Magic was taking place before our eyes.
But then Darnold took a sack. (Which was confirmed on replay review.)
And then he threw a pick.
That pick was essentially an aimless fling into a receiver who had three defenders surrounding him.
And that was that.
It didn’t help matters that Darnold was thoroughly outshined by his counterpart, No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield, who completed two more passes than Darnold on eight fewer attempts. Mayfield went 17-for-23 (73.9 percent), for 201 yards with no touchdowns or picks. Mayfield’s confidence was clearly evident, as was his command of the offense at the line of scrimmage. It was an impressive showing for the rookie, one that has the Browns and their fanbase feeling electrified.
The Jets and their fanbase? Well, after a promising start to the season, you can bet the heat will be turned up a bit on the rookie quarterback. How could it not?
Through three NFL games, Darnold has completed 60.2 percent of his passes for 701 yards, three touchdowns and five interceptions. His passer rating of 72.0 is better than only Blaine Gabbert, Tyrod Taylor, Josh Allen and Sam Bradford.
Mind you, this comes after a junior season at USC where Darnold, with the weight of all the attention that comes with being touted as a first-round draft pick, threw 26 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.
For his part, Darnold owned up to his performance after the loss (to the Browns!) and said he needs to be better. That maturity and responsibility will serve him well in a market like New York. But all the maturity in the world won’t matter if Darnold can’t play better.
Of course — OF COURSE — it’s only been three games. Peyton Manning only completed 54.4 percent of his passes for 683 yards, two touchdowns and eight interceptions (!!!) in his first three starts. Tom Brady completed 57.4 percent of his passes for 618 yards, two touchdowns and no picks in his first three starts. The careers of those guys turned out all right.
But, after an offseason where the world wondered if the Jets had found their quarterback to lead the franchise to success in a division that has long been dominated by Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, the early performance is not exactly an inspirational body of work.
It’s far too early to bury Darnold’s career. But for the young quarterback who was perhaps prematurely anointed as the Quarterback Of The Future™ for the New York Jets, Darnold clearly has a long way to go.