Sam Darnold
ESNY Graphic, Getty Images

New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold delivered a promising performance under the constant Baltimore pressure Thursday night. 

Michael Nania

It seems to have gotten lost in the mess of a 42-21 loss on national TV, but Sam Darnold had himself a good number of highly impressive moments against Baltimore’s elite defense on Thursday night.

While Darnold’s final numbers were pedestrian—18/32, 218 yards, two touchdowns, one interception, 85.2 rating, 6.8 yards per attempt—it needs to be taken into account just how difficult of an environment Baltimore is for visiting quarterbacks. When you add in this valuable context, it becomes clear that Darnold’s outing in Baltimore was yet another promising performance.

The New York Jets young quarterback was able to manage a pair of touchdown passes against the Ravens’ fourth-ranked DVOA defense. In Baltimore’s first six home games this season, opposing quarterbacks combined for just three touchdown passes. Not a single visitor threw more than one touchdown pass. They accomplished that against a group of opponents that included Tom Brady, Jimmy Garoppolo, Baker Mayfield and Deshaun Watson.

Since 2000 (the start of Baltimore’s run of dominance), 21 quarterbacks under 24 years old have thrown at least 15 passes as a visitor in Baltimore (including Darnold). Only three threw at least two touchdown passes and averaged over 6.0 net yards per pass play (which includes sack yardage) — Darnold, Mayfield, and Ben Roethlisberger.

Eight quarterbacks under 23 years old have visited Baltimore since 2000. Darnold and Roethlisberger are the only ones to launch two touchdown passes. The other six quarterbacks combined for just one touchdown pass.

There are areas where Darnold needs to improve, and some of those were on display in Baltimore, namely his willingness to take short first-down completions. Regardless, he has strung together six consecutive games that can each be categorized as somewhere from “decent” to “great.” His consistency has clearly taken a step up from his rookie year, and he is enjoying an extended stretch of solid play after a rocky start to the season.

Let’s take a look at some of Darnold’s best moments in Baltimore.

Darnold’s most impressive play of the night was arguably his first touchdown pass, a four-yard strike to Jamison Crowder early in the second quarter. One play after Crowder dropped a wide-open touchdown off of a rollout to the right, Darnold had the confidence to go back to Crowder on a nearly identical play the very next snap. On the move, under a good bit of heat and squeezed to the sideline, Darnold fires a bullet into the chest of Crowder that perfectly threads the needle between the tight coverage of Marlon Humphrey.

The window for that throw is minuscule. Darnold’s placement could not have any better, and the throw was made from a tough angle. If the ball were located anywhere else, it likely would have fallen incomplete. This is a big-time display of accuracy and ball placement.

Another one of Darnold’s best plays was an incompletion. On 4th-and-1 from the 7-yard line, Darnold takes immediate heat. While under immense pressure, Darnold fades and tosses the ball up from nearly 20 yards beyond the goal line. The ball lands near-perfectly into the arms of Robby Anderson, but Jimmy Smith makes an incredibly timed play to knock the ball out. Despite the (rare) failure by Anderson to haul in the touchdown, Darnold created a good opportunity for a touchdown from an impossible angle. He could not have thrown a better ball in that situation.

Anderson would make up for that one later, adding another contested grab to his growing reel over the past few weeks. Darnold does a nice job stepping up in the pocket after the pressure arrives. He then notices Robby Anderson breaking open towards the back left pylon, but the window is quickly tightening, so the ball needs to come out quickly in order for it to be squeezed in before Anderson reaches the sideline.

Knowing he does not have time to set if he wishes to hit Anderson, Darnold pulls up and launches a little jump pass, nicely placing it for Anderson to make the two-point grab. Yet another great display of Darnold’s ability to throw with beautiful touch from awkward angles.

Darnold’s second touchdown pass was another tight-window beauty to Crowder. The pocket immediately collapses. With escape lanes closed, Darnold needs to set and fire while accepting a hard hit in order to throw an accurate ball in this situation. He sets his feet, welcoming the contact, and pinpoints a tremendous throw to a blanketed Crowder.

Darnold did a great job leading Crowder to the outside, giving him the opportunity to break the tackle and rumble in for the touchdown. More savvy ball placement from Darnold, and another quality throw under pressure.

Darnold is growing. Put a little bit of effort into evaluating him beyond his box score stats, and you will see that Darnold is already proving he is at least capable of performing at a consistently average level. He is a quarterback you can win with — Darnold has shown time and again that he simply will not hold the team back when things are clicking. Quarterbacks like this are a highly valuable commodity. Jets fans should know how hard it is just to find competency from this position.

The question is, can Darnold correct his flaws and become a consistently dominant player that can carry the team into the playoff picture even when things are not clicking? When the team is marred by injuries? When the team is on the road against a superior opponent? When the team hits a talent dry spell and enters a season with a lower-echelon roster?

The answers to those questions remain a mystery. However, still just 22 years old, Darnold has plenty of time to develop into a superstar.

If the Jets can build a quality roster around Darnold, they do not have to worry about him holding them back. He has already proven that much. Should they assemble a competent offensive line, odds are strong that Darnold will produce like a top 10-15 quarterback over the course of a whole season (hopefully, Joe Douglas actually gets this done so Darnold can prove he is capable of this in 2020).

That is how good Darnold has been in games where his supporting cast was at least competent. His production and winning percentage in well-supported games are both better than what the league-average quarterback has done in the same situations.

Darnold’s high-point performances (and the consistency at which he has produced them) have made it clear that elite potential exists within him. But will fulfill that potential and go down as a megastar, or will he be limited to merely a decent starter?

There is no telling where Darnold will end up on the totem pole. All that it is certain is that it is going to take a few years until we truly know the answer.

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