Sam Darnold felt hands around his waist and a tug on his jersey from a blitzer, so he lofted a pass into traffic for a crushing red-zone interception in a loss to the Dolphins.
Sam Darnold was in the arms of the Giants’ best pass-rusher and falling forward as he zipped a pass across the middle so Robby Anderson could gain a first down and extend one of four touchdown drives in a victory.
What a difference a week makes. Actually, scratch that. What a difference the end result makes in perception of Darnold’s aggressive, freelance decision-making.
The Jets quarterback was heavily criticized for the interception, as CBS analyst Adam Archuleta said he “was in danger of letting these plays define who he is at quarterback.” The 11-yard completion, as Markus Golden tried to drag him to the turf for a sack, is celebrated as an example of what makes Darnold a difference-maker.
“We always say we don’t want to make throws when we are stuck in the grass, when guys are at our feet and it’s all upper body,” Darnold said. “You are not at your most accurate in that position.
“For me, it’s just about making sure it’s a good situation to be able to make the throw. If I’m going to do it, make sure it’s not an interception and it’s on target and our guy can catch it. It’s more instinctual than anything.”
Darnold explained the difference between the plays as understanding to throw the ball away and move on to the next down against the Dolphins — “I made it a lot harder than it had to be,” he said — versus understanding his shoulders were in a proper mechanical throwing position against the Giants.
But it’s not all that difficult to reverse the plays and imagine Darnold getting praised for a Patrick Mahomes-like creative touchdown against the Dolphins and blasted for a momentum-killing turnover against the Giants.
“I felt like it was a little bit different,” Darnold said, “but, yeah, there is definitely a fine line.”
Darnold recovered from three straight stinkers — eight interceptions total in losses to the Patriots, Jaguars and Dolphins — with a 97.9 quarterback rating against the Giants. He threw for 230 yards and a touchdown without a turnover.
“There were some tough defenses with a lot of new looks that we hadn’t seen before,” said veteran tight end Ryan Griffin, who has emerged as one of Darnold’s unlikely go-to targets. “That’s going to happen. He’s a young quarterback learning in this league. It’s really encouraging to see young guys get better week-to-week.”
And the throw to Anderson? “That just goes to show what kind of talent we have on this side of the ball,” Griffin said. “When we put it together, it could be special. That play was extra special, for sure.”
Offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains pointed to Darnold’s 7-yard completion to set up a manageable fourth-and-1 against a zero blitz from the Giants. The zero blitz — no safeties — is the strategy employed by the Patriots that prompted Darnold’s infamous “seeing ghosts” comment and three weeks worth of doubters.
“Trying to eliminate some of those impulse decisions,” Loggains said. “We needed to take that step in the right direction, which we did.”
The timing of the aggressive throws mattered: Both were second-down calls, but a red-zone interception removes potential points from the scoreboard and is much different than taking a risk near midfield.
And Darnold’s body leverage allowed him to get force behind one throw instead of what amounted to a no-look floater.
“Sometimes, as a quarterback, when things are rolling, you can take those chances,” Loggains said. “That’s part of managing the game — understanding when you need to find a completion. That time it was a good decision because of the way he was playing and the way he was seeing the field. We are trying to eliminate impulse decisions, but that’s part of what makes Sam special. He can make those plays.”
For more on the Jets, listen to the latest episode of the “Gang’s All Here” podcast: