How Much Was Darnold's Performance Affected By the Talent Around Him?

Photo Credit: Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

Fans met the Minnesota Vikings’ decision to sign Sam Darnold with resistance. After all, Darnold put together some truly catastrophic performances with the New York Jets in ways that are difficult to put into words.

Luckily, we don’t need words. The EPA and CPOE chart from RBSDM tells us all we need to know. EPA, or Expected Points Added, quantifies the average point value added by a quarterback based on measures like field position and down-and-distance. CPOE is Completion Percentage Over Expected, which essentially gives us completion rate but adjusts for the distance of the throw.

Measures like these put quarterbacks on a similar playing field and eliminate empty yards or screen-dependent plays. They also ask if a quarterback can move the ball or complete passes more precisely.

And Darnold was not particularly good at moving the ball or completing passes.

If you can’t find him, he’s the quarterback furthest down the chart. But we’ve seen quarterbacks escape the Jets and make the most of their careers, whether it’s a solid backup quarterback like Mark Sanchez (seriously) or genuinely exciting starter Geno Smith.

Darnold also played poorly under Matt Rhule in Carolina. Again, this is a situation where other quarterbacks thrived elsewhere – Teddy Bridgewater and Baker Mayfield had their worst years under Rhule and played far better with other coaches.

This certainly sounds like excuse-making, but that’s a matter of expectation and degree. If Darnold were to be judged against high-level passers like Patrick Mahomes or Josh Allen – or even Kirk Cousins – it would be appropriate to ask how good a quarterback he could be if he couldn’t overcome his situation.

But Darnold’s contract consumes 3.9% of the cap on an average annual basis. That’s the same deal Matt Cassel received and is similar to the deals Nick Foles and Kyle Orton received as bridge quarterbacks in Chicago and Buffalo.

Darnold is not the long-term starter; he’s a temporary stop-gap while the Vikings pursue their real quarterback of the future. Within that context, his New York performances are still abysmal and not representative of what Minnesota should want to pursue for that kind of role.

Luckily, Darnold has a little more going for him than just that moment in time. Under Steve Wilks in Carolina, Darnold produced elite play-by-play numbers – ranking fifth, between Josh Allen and Joe Burrow in the EPA + CPOE composite metric that RBSDM uses.

This is primarily built off of his ability to string together more completions than the average quarterback – he ranked second in CPOE – than it is a gamut of incredibly valuable plays, but that has its uses. The more stable metrics suggest that Darnold played like a starter.

Against other quarterbacks with somewhat substantial playing time, Darnold’s two-year performance in a clean pocket, on standard downs and distances and without play action, are all around the NFL average. His performance on throws beyond the sticks goes beyond that, exceeding his peers in success and accuracy rate.

Darnold has been interesting to track because his skillset and style of play don’t seem to align; he’s a big-armed athlete who doesn’t process as quickly as high-level quarterbacks often do but has primarily been a get-what-you-can QB, stylistically.

His level of play has seemingly elevated in the last two years because teams have been scheming some pretty easy throws for him. To his credit, he’s doing better with those easy throws than most quarterbacks — if a quarterback completes passes at an 85% clip on throws that typically earn a 70% completion rate, that’s very good.

Darnold has also shown more accuracy than we typically saw from his time in New York, with excellent ball placement both on and off platform. O’Connell typically wants quarterbacks to throw higher-value, higher-difficulty balls. While Darnold is very capable of that, it may be asking a lot if he can’t get out of bad plays.

The offense will have to be designed a bit differently with Darnold and a rookie at the helm. But that’s not a bad thing. Right now, Darnold is a surprisingly solid option for a team looking to avoid disaster as they get a rookie up to speed.

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