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The Jets May Be Turning Sam Darnold Into Mark Sanchez

The rookie signal-caller is playing like one of the worst QBs in the league, and it may take a coaching change to make sure the habits he’s picking up don’t stick

New York Jets v Miami Dolphins Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Sam Darnold is not the first 21-year-old to make bad decisions in New York. That’s an impressionable age, and the surrounding environment can have a big impact on your development. This is true for most people, but it’s especially true for Darnold, the young Jets quarterback who, in large part because of the environment the organization has created for him, is already struggling with decision-making. If nobody intervenes soon, these early slipups might turn into long-term habits.

The Jets’ anointed savior entered Sunday tied for the league lead in interceptions but decisively took the lead with a four-INT performance that knocked the Jets out of the AFC playoff picture and the wind out of Jets fans’ chests. As the Jets drop to 3–6, a season centered on Darnold’s progress has become about his regression, and Jets fans are worried that a subpar roster, poor coaching, and plain-old bad luck (which Jets fans call history) may turn Darnold into Mark Sanchez rather than Joe Namath.

It’s not a surprise that Darnold is turning the ball over. Boneheaded heaves were a feature of his USC career, not a bug, a reality punctuated when he threw a stupefying pick-six on his first NFL throw before leading the Jets to a blowout win on Monday Night Football. After that game, USC coach Clay Helton told reporters that Darnold’s calm demeanor on the sideline after the pick-six was the tell that Darnold would rebound for a comeback win.

Yet it’s hard to watch Darnold this season without beginning to doubt him. Darnold has thrown for less than 200 yards in four of his last seven games, and has thrown multiple interceptions four times this season. Sunday was his third game this season in which he had a passer rating under 39, which is roughly the score a quarterback would have if he failed to complete a single pass. The Jets have scored a combined 33 points in their last three games. That stretch includes Sunday’s 13–6 loss to Miami, the first NFL game in more than a decade in which the only touchdown was a pick-six. Worse, Darnold was the only player to turn the ball over in a game that featured Brock Osweiler.

Even putting aside the 14 interceptions, four fumbles, and his team’s record, the manner in which Darnold is turning over the ball is concerning. He is throwing picks when pressure is creeping up on him …

… but also when there’s no pressure on him.

He’s struggling to read zone coverages, failing to anticipate where defenders will be, and sometimes not seeing where defenders are hovering.

Turnovers are not necessarily a death knell for a rookie quarterback’s career. The record for interceptions by a first-year player was set by Peyton Manning in 1998, who turned out OK, and Jared Goff’s transformation after a disastrous rookie year into an MVP candidate in Year 3 is the best recent argument for not judging quarterbacks too early. But Manning went from playing under Jim Mora to Tony Dungy, and Goff went from Jeff Fisher to Sean McVay. The Jets may need to make a similar change at coach if they want Darnold to turn around.

Todd Bowles has yet to make the playoffs in three full seasons as Jets head coach, and his fourth campaign already looks like it will end before January. Offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates’s failure to put Darnold in positions to succeed is concerning. Injuries have certainly played a factor — Quincy Enunwa and Robby Anderson have both missed time, and converted center Spencer Long had a dislocated middle finger that made snapping the ball difficult on Sunday (only the Jets could make snapping the ball complicated). But with New York’s rebuild running behind schedule, the team’s locker room may be close to fracturing.

It’s particularly important for a quarterback as young as Darnold, who at 21 years and 97 days was the youngest player to start at quarterback in an NFL season opener since the Korean War. He is young enough to be molded by the environment that surrounds him — which is why his ceiling is so high — but the issue here is that the environment is the Jets. Rather than Darnold changing the team culture, he might be enveloped by it.