Is Sam Darnold ‘Breaking That Rookie Wall’ in His 2nd Season?

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Jets quarterback Sam Darnold walked into Coach Adam Gase’s office after the team’s sixth loss in seven games, an Oct. 27 rout by the Jacksonville Jaguars during which Darnold threw three interceptions and was sacked eight times. The second-year quarterback had a clear agenda: to improve communication between himself and Gase.

“I felt confident enough,” Darnold said in a conference call on Monday about initiating that meeting. “I felt like I knew the offense well enough to go in and have a really good conversation with him about it.”

Darnold, 22, was coming off the worst two-game stretch of his career. In that meeting he told Gase what was causing him to play slower than usual, contributing to turnovers.

“He was able to exactly tell me what he was looking for and kind of how I could help him,” Gase said. “And that’s the direction we went. That was zero issue for me.”

Neither he nor Darnold would publicly specify what they had discussed. But in the three games since, Darnold had a total of only two interceptions and one fumble, and the Jets (3-7) will go into Sunday’s game against the Raiders (6-4) with two consecutive wins.

Beyond that, Gase and Darnold say they have gained confidence in each other, thanks to Darnold’s having spoken up for himself.

“That’s what you want, you want your quarterback to be able to do that,” Gase said. “I think sometimes when you are a younger player, you are trying to feel everything out and see how everything works and operates.”

It was a turning point in a season that had gone off the rails. Darnold, who is typically soft-spoken, took charge. Until then the quarterback, who was the third overall pick in the 2018 draft and seen as the future of the team, appeared to be taking a significant step backward in his second year as a pro.

He is diagnosing and fixing problems now, tight end Ryan Griffin said, and telling teammates in the huddle what they need to clean up. “He’s been in our ear,” Griffin said.

Running back Bilal Powell said Darnold had begun asking the team to redo plays run incorrectly in practice and also making more adjustments, directing players when they are not lined up in the right places.

“He’s finally speaking and getting involved,” Powell said. “I think he’s finally breaking that rookie wall.”

Almost everyone connected to the Jets seems to recognize this change in leadership style, except Darnold himself. “Maybe I have been,” he said. “I haven’t really noticed. I don’t know.”

A laid-back and guileless California boy, Darnold was known in certain circles at U.S.C. as a “sweet little potato.” He celebrated being drafted at No. 3 by ordering pizza to his hotel room.

“He just wants to be with his friends and hang out and have fun,” said Tyler Petite, his roommate and teammate at U.S.C. “He’s super relaxed. Nothing really fazes him.”

This season was expected to be a progression for the Jets — they signed Le’Veon Bell, a three-time Pro Bowl running back, and they brought in Gase, an offensive specialist, in large part to elevate Darnold’s skills. But Darnold and the rest of the offense have struggled behind a line that has allowed 41 sacks, the second worst total in the league.

Bell has also been sluggish, averaging just 50.8 yards rushing per game, compared with 81.2 throughout his career.

As the team flailed on the field, the Jets organization tried to protect Darnold from public criticism. “We’ve got to take care of him as an entire organization,” General Manager Joe Douglas said late last month, adding, “We have to wrap our arms around him.”

The Jets have a history of mishandling quarterbacks that, even under a new administration, has continued with Darnold, said Matt Hasselbeck, an analyst for ESPN and an N.F.L. quarterback for 17 seasons. He pointed out that the team started Darnold the first week of his rookie season, instead of taking time to develop him as other teams did with franchise centerpieces like Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers.

“He’s been thrown out to the wolves early on,” Hasselbeck said. “The person or people making that decision, I don’t think they were taking a long-term approach with Darnold. I think they were just looking at the short term.”

Darnold was a raw talent out of college, Hasselbeck said, and he didn’t have a clear grasp of pass protection, which led to turnovers. Darnold had 15 interceptions and five fumbles in 13 games last season. This season, he has 10 interceptions and four fumbles in seven games.

Instead of beginning Year 2 as the face of a revitalized Jets offense, Darnold quickly became a source of ridicule. When he learned he had mononucleosis after the first game, the Jets announced their quarterback’s status with an odd graphic that used a picture of him pointing directly at the camera. It instantly became an internet meme.

Two weeks after the diagnosis, amid speculation about his return, Darnold unintentionally drew laughs with a candid response to a question about his recovery. “I want to make sure that I’m safe out there, and that I’m not going to die,” he said.

Then, in his second game back from mono, a mic’d Darnold uttered three words that threatened to define his season. Facing intense pressure from the New England Patriots, Darnold was caught on the sideline saying, “I’m seeing ghosts.”

Concerned about their quarterback becoming the butt of yet another joke, the Jets announced the next day that they would reconsider wearing microphones during games. Nevertheless, the “Ghostbusters” theme song followed Darnold everywhere for the next two weeks, including on the road at Jacksonville.

Yet while other young quarterbacks have shown their frustration — yelling at their offensive line, brawling with a defender or storming off during a news conference — Darnold has remained calm, even when he makes a big mistake. After throwing an interception against Washington last week, Darnold returned to the team bench and bowed his head. It was his only interception of the game.

“He does a really good job of never getting too high or too low,” said David Fales, the Jets’ backup quarterback. “He doesn’t get pissed right away. He wants to confirm what actually happened before he gets upset about something.”

Darnold will enter Sunday’s game after two of his stronger performances as a Jet. He threw for 293 yards and four touchdowns in a 34-17 win over Washington. In a 34-27 win against the Giants the week before, Darnold had 230 yards passing, two touchdowns and, most notably, no turnovers. He completed 19 of 30 passes in each game.

“I think he’s definitely got the ability, as long as he’s handled properly and they surround him with a good team as he’s growing,” Hasselbeck said, adding, “They need to find a way to string good stuff together.”