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How Sam Darnold makes the Jets’ offense an actual threat

Darnold is back and looks great, which is exactly what Adam Gase (and Robby Anderson) needed.

Dallas Cowboys v New York Jets Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images

The Jets notched their first win of the season thanks in large part to the return of second-year quarterback Sam Darnold from a nasty bout of mononucleosis. More important than a single win is how good Darnold looked against the heavily favored Cowboys. That made it clear just how much the Jets had missed Darnold’s big-play ability.

With backup Luke Falk at the helm for three games, opposing defenses paid little attention to Robby Anderson’s deep routes, instead stacking the box against running back Le’Veon Bell. Falk threw no touchdowns in 73 pass attempts, but he did toss three interceptions. New York is building a defense that has enough names to make them a threat, but the offense couldn’t hold up its end of the bargain without Darnold. Falk’s Jets scored 23 points in three games, while Darnold hung 24 on the Cowboys in Week 6 alone.

Darnold, also with 73 pass attempts on the season, has 513 yards and three touchdowns. He looked confident and sharp in New York’s 24-22 victory, which included a late field goal drive orchestrated by Darnold to keep them on top when Dallas was pulling close.

Let’s dive in and see what worked against the Cowboys.

Darnold gives Robby Anderson new life

Behind the scenes, it was reported that the Jets were worried about fourth-year wide receiver Robby Anderson and “losing him mentally” due the ineffective offense in recent weeks. Fortunately, the Jets found a way to get their speedster the football. That way was pretty simple: have a strong-armed quarterback hurl the ball downfield, something Falk wasn’t able to do.

“I could see Robby was giving me that look like, ‘You better call something deep pretty soon.’ I felt like it was the right time,” said head coach Adam Gase following the game.

The deep play they called happened to be a bomb to Anderson, one that provided an offensive spark the Jets have been without all season.

The offense was backed up near the end zone, coming off a stellar fourth-down stop on defense. Gase called the deep shot to Anderson, who ran a stop-and-go route that beat Cowboys cornerback Chidobe Awuzie. Darnold hit Anderson in stride at the 50-yard line and nobody on the Cowboys had any chance of catching him. The play went 92 yards, good for the second-longest scoring pass in Jets history and the longest play from scrimmage by any team this season.

Anderson was involved beyond that huge play. He saw eight targets, catching five for 125 yards and the touchdown. One of his crucial plays came late in the fourth quarter, following a Cowboys score that put them within five points.

That 18-yard catch above is also a good example of Darnold’s quick decision-making and pocket awareness, two more traits that Falk sadly lacked. You’ll notice that Darnold dropped back looking to his right, saw they were jamming his underneath receiver, and quickly went right to Anderson, with an outside throw that Jourdan Lewis had no shot of getting to.

Anderson didn’t provide the only Darnold highlights on Sunday, though.

Darnold adds a dimension the Jets’ offense sorely needs

Darnold completed 23 of 32 passes for 338 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception. It was his third career game of 300-plus yards passing, and he could have tacked on a lot more if the Jets didn’t get more conservative in the second half — Darnold averaged 10.6 yards per pass, a career high. The Jets managed season highs in yards (382) and first downs (20) while going up against a Cowboys defense that allowed under 300 passing yards in four of their six games this season.

Let’s take a look at some of Darnold’s better plays.

This was the first offensive play of the game for the Jets, and it made a clear statement: Darnold is ready to ball and won’t be gun-shy. Gase called a play-action to Bell, before Darnold stood in the pocket, fired over one defender and out of reach of the second into the hands of Demaryius Thomas.

A few minutes later, though, Darnold threw my favorite pass of the game: a beautiful 24-yarder to Jamison Crowder.

The touch on this throw is one that stuck with me. Darnold quickly checked his right, but focused in on Crowder, who had Anthony Brown beat off the snap. It was still a risky throw — Brown wasn’t beat that badly and if this ball wasn’t perfect, it could have given Brown time to get situated. Instead, he never turned around because Crowder didn’t have to break stride to make the reception.

Darnold’s touch impressed me over and over on Sunday. Other than his interception, his passes were largely on target and the bulk of his incompletions didn’t come on errant throws. It’s also good to see Darnold hanging in the pocket for bigger passes later in the game.

If Darnold was afraid of taking any hits due to his mono and enlarged spleen recovery, I didn’t see it on the film. He wasn’t in danger of getting absolutely crushed, but the way he rethought his decision to roll to his left in the face of pressure was a good sign. He then used his quick release to heave a bullet to Crowder for a modest gain on second-and-10. He found the hole in the zone, and easily floated the pass over the linebacker, something that younger quarterbacks tend to struggle with.

Darnold’s “always looking forward, always moving” style reminds me a lot of Russell Wilson. He’s obviously not at Wilson’s level and will never be the scrambler Wilson is, but every move Darnold takes behind the line is with his eyes forward, looking for the play to make. Sometimes that results in a sack, or sometimes it results in another dart to Crowder.

This was a deep dropback on the same drive where Anderson caught the pass late in the game — the Jets needed to put some points on the board because momentum was beginning to swing in favor of Dallas. On first-and-10 in Jets territory, Gase dialed up another deep play and Darnold, with patience you love to see from second-year quarterbacks, stepped up and drove this one, again, over the head of a linebacker and into the soft spot in the zone. You can even see the linebacker leapt to try and get a hand on it, but Darnold had the arc down perfect.

Not every game is going to go as well as Week 6 did for Darnold, but it’s a a sign of what the Jets can be now, not a year from now. While Bell hasn’t been very productive with just 256 yards in five games, teams have been able to focus on stopping him. If Darnold remains effective, it could lead to Bell’s resurgence — and then the Jets will be truly dangerous.

With two games against the Dolphins, as well as matchups against the Giants, Bengals, and Washington still to come, there’s plenty of room for the Jets to win some games this year. It will be most interesting to see what happens when they face the Patriots in Week 7, though. The first time they met, Falk threw for 98 yards and the Jets lost, 30-14. The stingy Patriots defense will be a good test for Darnold, and will tell us a lot about where he is.