The career trajectories of the legendary Brett Favre and the young Sam Darnold are not the same, and the accomplishments are obviously nowhere close. In terms of play style, temperament, and clutch performances with the game on the line there are similarities. Calling a redshirt sophomore college quarterback the equivalent to one of the NFL’s Hall Of Fame talents is a stretch, but as a broad generalization there is a comparison to be made.
Brett Favre was known known as a gunslinger, throwing the ball deep and hitting receivers for touchdowns when the chips were in the middle of the table and the game was on the line. Did he make mistakes? Sure. Did he throw a lot of picks? Yes, that is sometimes the cost of making tight throws from distance. The point was, when the Green Bay Packers needed a touchdown drive, Favre would go out and get it more often than not.
Watching USC Trojans quarterback take over in the game against Utah last weekend, I was mesmerized by Darnold as he drove the Trojans down the field three times to take the game back and steal victory away from Utah. He pulled off similar accomplishments against Texas in September, and Penn State in the Rose Bowl last season.
His defense was stout until the final drive, giving up a touchdown with a failed two-point conversion. Though one could make the counter argument that Darnold’s multiple turnovers put the defense on the field way more than necessary against a physical opponent and fatigue caught up to them. The Trojans have needed a ton of help from their defense this season. Against Utah, however, Darnold was able to put the mistakes behind him at halftime and put the Trojans up when it mattered. So what are we to make of the multiple first half fumbles against Utah or the nine interceptions he had thrown in the previous 6 games?
While Darnold does have some fundamental issues that desperately need correcting it is also possible that maybe he is just a different kind of quarterback with a different kind of temperament than we anticipated.
Headed into the season, the expectation was a Heisman candidate that would lead USC to a PAC-12 championship and playoff berth. The populace anointed him the number one pick in the NFL draft before he started his first full college football season. No Darnold, is not the perfect quarterback, he has some painfully glaring issues sabotaging his performance. But, for now at least, it is ok because defense is holding steady and Darnold has also repeatedly proven himself capable of taking games over to find ways to win in clutch situations.
In addition to Darnold’s impressive second half against Utah, A field goal drive in the final 45 seconds of regulation followed by a quick touchdown strike on the first play of overtime was key to defeating Texas. Then of course there was just about every single thing he did in the 4th quarter of the Rose Bowl the Trojans trailed by two touchdowns.
While Darnold is not doing himself or his team any favors with the absurd amount of turnovers, tons of key departures from 2016’s offense, questionable play calling, an unbelievable amount of key injuries at every offensive unit around him in 2017, and a shaky group of pass catchers have not exactly helped matters. On the one hand it is essential for Darnold to have a better grip on the ball at all times and he must quit staring down receivers allowing him to do a better job of going through his progressions. Fixing just those two issues would rid Darnold of most of his turnover woes and passing issues. On the other hand, even with those fixes, the significant shortcomings of the offense as whole in the first half of the season would have likely caught up to USC at some point.
It has not been pretty. Given the preseason hype many assumed the Trojans would float straight to 12-0 and into the Pac-12 Championship game with ease. The reality though has been far grittier and uglier but they are still winning games, still clinging to victories. Not only that, this team is fun, this team is exciting and has you on the edge of your seat. Take away the name and expectations for the team. At No. 11 this team is looking pretty good with only one loss to a good team despite facing what has been a surprisingly really tough schedule and countless injuries.
Instead of looking at this team’s shortcomings, maybe it is time to start looking at USC’s ability to win in the clutch.
And at the helm of the ship, Darnold. He sits at 2,063 passing yards and 15 touchdowns, adding three scores on the ground. He turns the ball over too much but also is incredibly clutch. He has a short memory and bounces back in a matter of quarters or drives not weeks or games. Throwing a pick is bad, finding a rut because of it is far worse and Darnold’s constant ability to pick himself up and move on is one of his finest qualities.
He is a good quarterback because when the rubber hits the road and the going gets tough, Darnold is the quarterback that can rally the troops to head uphill and fight out of trouble. He can sling it with the game on the line, not shying away because of a bad quarter. While the USC fan base may be on alert for heart attack all season long, he is a good quarterback and will keep finding ways to win games.
In case it has been forgotten the defending national champions had a similar path in 2016. Deshaun Watson was more consistent than Darnold but the Clemson Tigers had 8 games in 2016 that were decided by one score. They won seven of those 8. They lost to the Pitt Panthers, and had to squeak out a 6-point win against Troy. For those trying to minimize the Utah victory by pointing out how they got lucky because the Utes botched the 2-point conversation, consider that NC State just needed to hit a last-second 33-yard field goal to beat Clemson but a miss sent the game into overtime.
This is not an attempt to compare these teams, nor make an argument for a particular prediction this season. The fact is, there is luck, randomness, imperfections, and downright bad performances for every team every year. What matters is knowing how to win, and finding ways to win.