Sam Darnold might have seen ghosts before Halloween, but the Jets' second-year signal-caller did not stay haunted after one fright night. Darnold's vison got better in his second professional season and the Green & White's future looks bright with him leading the way.
"I'm seeing things a lot more clearly. Obviously it doesn't seem that way with the whole ghosts thing going on with the Pats game," he said as his second professional season neared a conclusion. "That was just one game and I thought that was a whole other thing. I felt there was story after story this year too, so it was a crazy year. I feel like I did improve with seeing defenses, recognizing coverages and what kind of pressures they were bringing. It was just a little bit easier to see coverages and I think as I continue to play, with experience, I'm going to continue to get better that way."
The Jets' 33-0 loss to the Patriots on Monday night football was Darnold's low point in Year 2. He was intercepted four times, lost a fumble on a sack and knocked a snap out of the end zone for a safety. ESPN had a microphone on Darnold during the game and broadcast his, "I'm seeing ghosts" line to the nation as the Jets struggled to handle the New England blitz and different looks.
The unexpected would become the expected. Six weeks prior to the shutout loss to the Pats, Darnold woke up on multiple occasions the eve of the regular-season opener against the Bills. He didn't feel right and wondered if it was nerves. Hours later, Darnold would hit on 68.3% of his passes, but the Jets were held to one offensive touchdown and couldn't hold onto a 16-point lead over Buffalo at home. Two days later, he was diagnosed with mono and would miss three games.
"I felt like there were times I played well and there were times I didn't. I felt like when I was out there the adrenaline kind of took over, but then after the game I was hating it," he said. "I felt really sick. My parents were there, so I felt really bad. I was like, 'Guys I just want to go to bed.' I didn't want to hang out or go to dinner or anything. It was definitely a weird start to the season."
He returned to action and led New York to its first victory of the season, torching the Dallas secondary for 338 yards and 2 TDs in a Week 6 win. But the success wasn't long-lasting. After the Jets fell 29-15 in Jacksonville in Week 8, a battered Darnold, who was sacked 8 times by the Jags, went into Adam Gase's office and took ownership of the offense.
"I felt comfortable enough with the offense to go in and share my thoughts about it. I was just sharing my thoughts, what I liked, what I didn't like, and then he did the same thing and we kind of came to a conclusion," he said. "It was nice. I was able to get some things off my chest. He was able to get some things off his chest, and I just thought it was a really good meeting and I thought it made us better as a team for sure."
The Jets won six of their final eight games as Darnold totaled 15 TDs and had 6 turnovers. He became a better decision maker and found different ways to victory including offensive prolific passing displays against Washington and Oakland, a fourth-quarter comeback over Miami and grind-it-out triumphs over Pittsburgh and Buffalo
"I felt like I could be a little bit better protecting the ball in terms of the interceptions. I feel like I'm throwing too many of those still," said Darnold, who finished with 19 TD passes and 13 INTs. "A lot of times where I should try to throw the ball away, I try to force it. But I think with experience, I'm going to continue to get better that way. In the pocket, I feel like I'm doing a good job of just staying in there and making sure I keep two hands on the ball in the pocket at all times. I feel like I'm getting a lot better in that way as well."
The amicable Southern California passer is the second-youngest player on the Jets roster. He already has 26 starts on his resume and he displayed his impressive mettle in New York despite an adversity-filled season that saw the Jets place 20 players on injured reserve. Darnold, who fought through left thumb, knee and ribs ailments, lined up behind the majority of the team's nine OL combinations.
"One of the best things I've seen this season is just him growing, him being able to put the games like the New England game in his rearview mirror and just move forward and the mental, psychological toughness he shows day in, day out, week in and week out, being able to learn from mistakes, his natural leadership skills," said GM Joe Douglas. "I saw unbelievable growth from Sam. I think he has innate leadership qualities. Guys gravitate towards him and guys respect him for what he's all about as a player and as a person. I'm so excited to get this offseason going, for him to get back with his teammates and really get this offense off the ground and going for 2020."
Lesser players would have folded after the mono, the ghosts, the injuries and a pair of losses to two teams 0-7 or worse in the same season. Darnold, who had a 7-6 mark as a starter, didn't waver and his vision is exactly what this franchise needs moving forward.
"I think we were tested in a lot of ways this year — good, bad, indifferent. But it really tested us and we showed a lot of resiliency through it," he said. "There is something to be said for that. I feel like that will only make us better in the future and I think that resiliency will show next year."