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Sam Darnold was great in his Jets debut, but it doesn’t mean he’ll be great

September 11, 2018 at 11:21 AM

Sam Darnold is the youngest quarterback to start a season opener since the AFL-NFL merger of 1970. (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Sam Darnold, the New York Jets’ 21-year-old rookie quarterback, made history Monday night, becoming the youngest quarterback to start a season opener since the AFL-NFL merger of 1970.

His debut started off shaky — the third overall pick in the 2018 NFL draft threw a pick-six on his first pass attempt of the night. But Darnold quickly settled into his new role, completing 16 of 21 passes for 198 yards and two touchdowns, en route to a 48-17 road victory over the Detroit Lions.

He didn’t flinch. He didn’t even blink,” Jets coach Todd Bowles said of Darnold’s early miscue. “I could sit here and tell you we planned it to get the jitters out, but we didn’t.”

Related: [Bills QB Nathan Peterman has put himself in some truly terrible historical territory]

Darnold’s 116.8 passer rating was the fourth-highest for a quarterback throwing at least 20 pass attempts in his debut since 1999, the first year data is available from Pro Football Reference. His completion rate, 76 percent, was the second-highest among this group, with the young passing prodigy throwing only four incomplete passes after the pick-six.

“On that interception, I was pretty nervous,” Darnold said. “After that, I put it behind me.”

His performance also helped put decades of futility in the past for Jets fans. Still, they shouldn’t let that optimism get out of control.

For starters, the Jets’ passing offense scored four points more than expected based on the down, distance and field position of each play, indicating Darnold did nothing more than an average quarterback would be expected to do. Ryan Fitzpatrick’s performance for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, on the other hand, was indeed heroic, resulting in 31 more points than expected against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday.

Context is also key when comparing Darnold’s debut to other quarterbacks in previous years. If we adjust his performance, and those of other rookie passers, for the era in which each played (meaning we account for the higher passing tendencies of the modern NFL), we see Darnold’s debut was solid, but not at all conclusive. For example, based on his adjusted net yards per pass, an improvement on the traditional passer rating metric, Darnold was worth 59 yards more than an average quarterback. Robert Griffin III’s debut for the Washington Redskins in 2012, by comparison, was worth 186 yards above average, the highest since 1999. But it’s the company around Darnold on the list below that suggests fans should pump the breaks before thinking future success is assured.

There are some notable names on the list — Cam Newton, Carson Palmer and Carson Wentz — and there are some clunkers, too. Griffin was hampered by injuries and an inability to make reads form the pocket and never fulfilled his potential. Chris Weinke started five games in six years after his rookie campaign. Patrick Ramsey had a career high 11 starts in his second year as a pro, yet couldn’t hold on to a starting job after that.

Related: [The five biggest winners from Week 1 of the NFL season]

Those that watch the game and grade each play were only mildly impressed. According to the game charters at Pro Football Focus, Darnold was a below-average passer on Monday night, earning a negative grade for his performance against the Lions. They placed him 17th among 30 qualified passers. He was very good when given a clean pocket to throw from — 78 percent completion rate and a 123.4 passer rating — yet was 2-for-3 for 13 yards when pressured. Five snaps under pressure is obviously a small sample size to work with, but the Lions’ pass rush wasn’t expected to be good this season (24th) so it is difficult to know for sure how good Darnold can be in the NFL until he at least faces the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 4, a team ranked second in pass-rushing ability and first for pass coverage before the season started.

Until then, let’s take a wait-and-see approach with Darnold and his future with the New York Jets.

Rad more NFL coverage:

Aaron Rodgers showed again Sunday night just how ridiculously good he is

These aren’t the same old Browns. And the Steelers need Le’Veon Bell back on the field.

Jordan Reed’s mom sent him the viral video of his sideline yoga routine

Football betting trends, takeaways and a bad beat seven hours in the making

Neil Greenberg is a staff writer with The Washington Post whose beat is sports analytics. His analysis and insight can be found on the Fancy Stats blog, where he covers all pro sports, as well as college football and basketball.

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