This is the kind of game we all expected from Sam Darnold.
It just came one week later than we thought it would.
Darnold was downright mediocre Sunday in a 20-12 loss to the Dolphins at MetLife Stadium, throwing two brutal interceptions and making the kind of mistakes you assume a rookie quarterback will make. It’s all part of the growing pains just about every rookie is bound to experience.
But with the job he did on opening night in a nationally televised 48-17 win over the Lions — especially the way he rallied after that pick-6 on his very first NFL regular-season snap — he raised the bar of expectation.
Darnold performed almost seamlessly in training camp and during the preseason to make it a no-brainer for Todd Bowles to name him the starter. And his composure after throwing that pick-6 in Detroit signaled that Darnold was ready to make good on his potential more quickly than most.
Yet here he was in Week 2, looking very much like a rookie and turning the follow-up to Monday night’s tour de force into a sobering reminder of how difficult this NFL apprenticeship can be.
“Every loss I have as a team, every loss I have as an individual, whether it’s a game or whether it’s a play, I’m going to take that as a lesson, a lesson that I can learn,” Darnold said.
There were many lessons to be learned in this one.
Darnold admittedly was placed in poor field position through much of the game, thanks to subpar special-teams play and the Dolphins’ alert maneuvering for field position. But most of his struggles were self-imposed. He threw an interception on a slant route to Quincy Enunwa at the Jets’ 46, which led to a Miami touchdown in the first quarter. So that’s two first-quarter interceptions that led to scores in back-to-back games.
He was productive enough after that, finishing with 334 passing yards and a 28-yard touchdown pass to running back Bilal Powell on the Jets’ first drive of the third quarter to make it 20-6.
Darnold took the blame for his second interception, although he wasn’t entirely at fault. The Jets had forced a huge turnover, as linebacker Jordan Jenkins sacked Ryan Tannehill on the first play after Darnold’s touchdown pass. Jenkins recovered the ball at Miami’s 12-yard line, giving the Jets a prime opportunity to pull within a score.
Offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates called for wide receiver Terrelle Pryor to run a skinny post into the end zone. Pryor lined up to the far right of the formation and raced upfield, trying to get as close as he could to cornerback Xavien Howard before cutting inside. But Pryor said he should have started his cut to the middle earlier and thus was behind the throw when Darnold delivered the ball that Howard intercepted.
“I cut [the route] off a little shorter before stepping on [Howard’s] toes,” Pryor said. “He wasn’t really moving because it was in the red zone. That’s the mistake I had there, and we paid for it. I let the quarterback down.”
Darnold took the blame, though.
“I put that on myself,” he said.
“I could have put the ball up a little more, give [the 6-4 Pryor] a chance to go up and snag it with his big body and his long arms. Thought I could have given him a better chance to go get the ball.”
It was a monumental mistake when the Jets couldn’t afford another one.
“Whenever you get a turnover in the red zone,” Darnold said, “you want to be able to put that one in the end zone. We got to make ’em pay for turning the ball over and we just gave it right back to them.”
It was a hard lesson learned but certainly an understandable one, given that Darnold, 21, is the youngest rookie quarterback to go into a season as a starter since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. And he did show some grit with two more second-half drives for field goals.
It wasn’t enough, though, and the Jets’ euphoria after Monday night’s victory evaporated in a dispiriting loss to their long-standing AFC East rivals.
There is little time for the Jets to lament this clunker, though. They now must prepare for a Thursday night game against the improved Browns in Cleveland.
“You look at all the plays you wish you had back,” Darnold said. “That goes for every game you lose. Short week, we got a game Thursday, so got to get right back at it and put this one behind us as soon as we can.”