The vindication will come in time, as long as Sam Darnold continues to fulfill the promise the Jets saw in him when they drafted him.
Even through the inevitable low points he’s experiencing as a rookie, the payoff will be worth it in the end.
Just not so much in the beginning. And especially not after he was outplayed by the quarterback who spurned the Jets in free agency by choosing the more Super Bowl-ready team.
This was Kirk Cousins’ afternoon on Sunday at MetLife Stadium, as the 30-year-old quarterback vanquished the swirling winds and chilly temperatures to lead the Vikings to a 37-17 win over Darnold’s Jets.
Cousins made the wise choice by going to the Vikings, who were within a victory of reaching last season’s Super Bowl. And he absolutely played his cards right by leveraging the Jets’ fully guaranteed $90-million offer to secure a $9-million increase as part of the Vikings’ $84-million package.
Would Cousins have made a big difference in the Jets’ offense had he signed with them? Of course he would have. But the Jets still are better off having the chance to develop Darnold from Day 1 of his NFL career on a roster still in need of far more upgrading than the Vikings are.
On this day, though, Darnold showed just how much development is required before he’s ready to make his own run at a championship. After a terrific first-quarter touchdown drive that he finished off with a 12-yard pass to rookie tight end Chris Herndon, Darnold was outplayed at every turn by Cousins, who has a far better cast with which to work.
With Darnold missing standout receiver Quincy Enunwa (ankle) as well as Terrelle Pryor, who was released on Saturday because of a groin injury, Cousins had his full complement of targets, including receivers Adam Thielen (who set an NFL record with his seventh straight 100-yard receiving game from the start of the season) and Stefon Diggs as well as tight end Kyle Rudolph.
Darnold also failed to overcome the challenging weather conditions. He refused to make any excuses, even if he is unaccustomed to playing in the Northeast after growing up and playing college ball in Southern California.
“The conditions are the conditions,” he said. “It wasn’t too windy out there. I didn’t really struggle with it at all, in my opinion.”
Credit the Vikings’ defense with creating most of Darnold’s problems. Coach Mike Zimmer’s scheme stresses plenty of man coverage as well as a dose of Cover 2 zone, and a consistently strong pass rush made it tough for Darnold to get comfortable for long stretches of time. At one point from after the first quarter until early in the fourth quarter, Darnold had minus 1 yards passing. He was particularly ineffective on third downs; the Jets went a miserable 2-for-13 on third-down conversions and weren’t successful until Darnold scrambled for a first down more than 10 minutes into the third quarter.
His third-quarter interception on an attempted pass to Robby Anderson on a deep ball down the left side was brutal. Anderson had to try and bat the ball away from cornerback Xavier Rhodes, who tipped the pass and redirected it toward safety Harrison Smith, who returned it 52 yards to the Jets’ 9. The Jets held the Vikings to a field goal to make it 20-7, and though the Jets got back to within 10 points twice more, Darnold couldn’t bring them all the way back.
Darnold finished 17-for-42 for 206 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions for a miserable 34.4 rating, by far the lowest of his fledgling career. Yet the game still held value for the 21-year-old quarterback, who is 3-4 heading into next Sunday’s game against the Bears at Soldier Field.
“I learned a lot this game,” he said. “I learned to continue to fight. It’s a four-quarter game. The first half, I thought I personally played bad. We’ve just got to keep fighting. Again, we’ve got to execute. That’s what it comes down to, and we’ve got to do a better job of that.”
You knew there would be days like this for Darnold, just as there are for any young quarterback. That it happened against the veteran who spurned the Jets certainly wasn’t the optic the Jets had hoped for, but it’s all part of the process.
As long as Darnold’s apprenticeship continues on an upward track – and there is every reason to believe it will – he will have plenty of opportunities to justify the Jets’ conviction in him.