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The Sam Darnold question: Looking at scheme

Here is another way to frame the Darnold-Barkley debate

NFL: New York Jets at Washington Redskins Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Sam Darnold. Saquon Barkley. Two players who will be forever linked because of circumstance. When the New York Giants made the decision to pass on the quarterback from the University of Southern California to select the running back from Penn State University, they set the template for years worth of columns, radio show topics and caller gripes. Should Barkley not live up to the promise and/or should Darnold develop into a Pro Bowl caliber quarterback, Giants fans will continue to point to that moment and that decision as a reason for future failures by the organization.

With the Giants set to face Darnold and the New York Jets on Friday night, you can expect the volume to be turned up a bit on this question.

While the overwhelming weight of human nature may make that linkage a foregone conclusion, there is always another way to examine the issue. The method to take today is through a schematic lens. When evaluating quarterbacks it is important to look not only at the traits from the individual player, but also the underlying scheme fit. Every draft season countless arguments play out about a particular quarterback’s set of traits, but not enough attention is placed upon their scheme fit and landing spot. While traits certainly matter, one cannot underestimate the importance of scheme fit. For a prime example, look at Jared Goff Year 1, and Jared Goff Year 2.

It has been argued before that with the pairing of Pat Shurmur and Mike Shula, the Giants may take on more of a downfield passing flavor that harkens back to the earlier days of Eli Manning’s career, where he experienced personal and team success in an Air Coryell-influenced offense under Tom Coughlin. Between Shula’s Air Coryell influences, Manning’s success in such a system, the presence of a true vertical threat in Odell Beckham Jr. as well as an emerging threat at the tight end position in Evan Engram, the Giants might be looking to push the ball vertically in 2018.

Enter the potential scheme fit for Darnold in such an offense.

Scheme fit was a tricky issue when it came to Darnold. It was probably easiest to eliminate a more Erhardt-Perkins type of system, such as the New England Patriots run, that is heavily predicated on timing and rhythm. Given Darnold’s footwork and looping mechanics, a system rooted in precision was not an ideal fit. That leaves a more downfield approach, such as the Giants might look to run in 2018, or a more West Coast influenced attack, focusing on the quick game and snap decisions from the quarterback.

While there was room for reasonable debate between the two schools of thought, perhaps the Giants, when anticipating their 2018 offense, looked at vertical plays like this from Darnold and became wary:

On that play against the University of California Darnold tries to throw a vertical seam route against a Cover 1 look. But the throw fails to reach the target, Darnold fails to look off the free safety, and the pass ends up an interception.

So Darnold instead ends up with the Jets, who are a more pure West Coast offense under their new offensive coordinator, Jeremy Bates. Through two preseason games, you can see that West Coast offense take shape for the rookie quarterback.

Here are two plays from Darnold’s game against the Washington Redskins, first a first-and-10 early in the first quarter, and second a third-and-4 later in the opening quarter. Both of these plays are variations of the Spot concept, a quick passing combination:

On both of these plays you can see the quick decision-making from the quarterback, with Darnold making a near immediate decision on the first play, and another quick decision on the second. These quick route concepts are core components of the West Coast offense, looking to attack the defense quickly, making the short throws which are an extension of the running game, and looking for the receivers to pick up yardage after the reception.

Here is another play with Darnold running a curl/flat variation similar to the Hank concept, which has a mirrored curl/flat route combination to each side of the formation. This variation has a running back swing route to the left instead of a flat route, but the premise is the same. In addition, apologies for the broadcast cutting off the beginning of the play:

Here, Darnold hits the tight end on the sit route over the middle of the Atlanta Falcons’ defense. Another quick decision on a West Coast passing concept.

This next play is another prime example of Darnold running West Coast concepts under Bates. Against Washington the Jets empty the backfield on a third-and-3, and run dueling West Coast concepts. On the right side of the formation New York runs a slant/flat combination, a staple of this passing system. To the left the Jets run a multiple slant combination, another West Coast staple. Watch as Darnold quickly reads the defense, sees the rotation in coverage and makes a quick decision:

These are the kinds of snap reads and decisions that a quarterback must make in such a passing offense, and so far Darnold has shown an ability to make them.

Now we can look at some of the elements we have seen from the Giants this preseason, to bring the point home. As one might expect, the Giants’ offense has shown a more vertical nature this pre-season:

Now, maybe this is all premature. Maybe the Giants offense will take on more of a Shurmur influence, and become more of a West Coast system once we get into the regular season. Maybe Darnold will grow out of the loopy delivery and deficiencies in manipulating defenders, and become a better fit for a vertical passing game. Right now it seems like the goal for the Giants as an organization was to take on a more downfield approach in the passing game, and given Manning’s previous success in such a system, the current core of receiving targets, and Davis Webb’s traits as a quarterback, that system made the most sense for the present. So when making a decision with the second-overall pick, the Giants passed on a QB that, to them, was not the best fit for what their plans were. Perhaps that has been the reasoning all along.

Thankfully, we will have the entire careers of Darnold and Barkley to debate this question.