Matthew Coller: Who are the historical comps for Sam Darnold?

The Vikings will start camp with Sam Darnold as QB1. Have there been players to emerge from career darkness like him before?
Vikings quarterback Sam Darnold from May 28, 2024 of the third day of the 2024 OTAs at TCOPC in Eagan, MN.
Vikings quarterback Sam Darnold from May 28, 2024 of the third day of the 2024 OTAs at TCOPC in Eagan, MN. / Image courtesy of the Minnesota Vikings

If you only pulled up Sam Darnold’s Pro-Football Reference page and didn’t know anything about the circumstances in which he posted those numbers, you would never believe that there were real people arguing that he could have a career surge in 2024.

Over three seasons as the starter in New York, he won 13 of 38 starts and threw 45 touchdowns to 39 interceptions. He completed fewer than 60% of his passes, averaged under 7.0 yards per pass attempt and got sacked 98 times. Not great, Bob.

In Carolina things went almost exactly the same except he won more often. In 17 starts over two years the Panthers went 8-9 but his TD:INT ratio, completion percentage, QB rating and sack percentage were nearly identical.

What makes believers out of the Vikings and their fans that Darnold could have another gear despite a 56-game sample with more downs than ups is that the coaching and supporting casts in his previous stops were — put Minnesota nicely — less than ideal. Adam Gase and Matt Rhule’s tenures were disastrous and he performed admirably under Carolina interim HC Steve Wilks.

Darnold played with DJ Moore in Carolina but his other weapons were not on the same level as Jordan Addison, Aaron Jones or TJ Hockenson. Outside of Moore, his top targeted players were Robbie Chosen, Jamison Crowder, Chris Herndon and Le’Veon Bell.

The other reason that a Darnold mid-career (he’s only 26, remember) surge is that it’s happened before. There have been a handful of quarterbacks over the last three decades who were drafted high, struggled in their first location and then found themselves when they got a chance to play under better circumstances. Let’s have a look at the examples to see if there’s any similarities.

Jake Plummer

As an Arizona Cardinal, the second-rounder won just 30 of 82 games over six seasons. Among quarterbacks who started at least 50 games from 1997 through 2002, Plummer ranked dead last in quarterback rating (69.0) and threw more picks than anyone from that era. He was also sacked the fourth most and had the second lowest completion percentage.

When he arrived in Denver with legendary head coach Mike Shanahan everything turned around instantly. He went 9-2 with a 91.2 QB rating in 2003 while passing to Shannon Sharpe and Rod Smith and handing off to Clinton Portis. For our younger readers: Those players were very, very good at football. In 2005, a confident Plummer went 13-3 and outplayed Tom Brady in the playoffs in a win over New England. He ended up with a 39-15 record and had the 10th best QB rating among QBs from ‘03-’06.

What makes Plummer a prime example to compare to Darnold is that there was nothing on paper that would have suggested that he had another level to his game. He had a ton of starts under his belt and there wouldn’t have been much rationality — aside from the fact he was talented — behind suggesting that he would be good in Denver. But the coaching and supporting cast was top notch and his play followed.

Geno Smith

It’s never good when a starting QB has more interceptions than touchdowns in the modern era but that’s what Geno Smith ended his Jets career with. He went 12-18 with eight more INTs than TDs and a 72.4 QB rating, worst among all starters with at least 20 games between 2013 and 2016.

While Plummer went from starting position to starting position, Smith, like Darnold, took on a backup QB role in between opportunities. Smith played behind Eli Manning and Russell Wilson for four years before beating out Drew Lock to start in Seattle. When he got back in the game, a more mature Smith posted back-to-back above .500 seasons and managed the eighth best QB rating since 2023.

Smith was given the benefit of a positive-minded coaching staff and star receivers in DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett. The expectations for Darnold’s best-case scenario might be similar. If he learns from his time as the 49ers’ backup and then brings the Vikings into playoff contention 9-8 that would be considered a pretty big success.

Sam Bradford

Injuries are a much bigger part of Bradford’s story than Darnold’s but he did struggle with a poor supporting cast in St. Louis. Between 2010 and 2013 he ranked 28th of 36 QBs in QB rating (min. 20 starts).

When he arrived in Minnesota, Bradford adopted Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs and Kyle Rudolph. All of them shined with him under center and, despite a brutal offensive line performance, he still posted the sixth best QB rating in the league and the 14th best PFF grade. After his start in Week 1 against New Orleans in 2017 it appeared that Bradford was going to completely change the narrative about his career.

Bradford had more flashes along the way, like his Rookie of the Year debut season but he wasn’t thought to have a higher ceiling than a replacement-level QB. The Vikings weren’t complete enough around him in 2016 to compete for a championship, which may be the case with Darnold, but he did take advantage of his playmakers and gave the team a chance to compete for the playoffs.

Baker Mayfield

The difference between Mayfield and Darnold is that the former No. 1 pick of the Browns had more success with his first team. Mayfield won 11 games with a 95.9 rating in 2020 and beat the Steelers in the playoffs. But the wheels fell off in 2021 and overall Mayfield finished his Cleveland tenure at 29-30 and then went 2-8 between Carolina and Los Angeles. Out of 21 quarterbacks who started at least 50 games between 2018-2022, Mayfield had the third worst quarterback rating, only ahead of Andy Dalton and Darnold.

Last year with the Tampa Bay Bucs, Mayfield tossed the ball in Mike Evans and Chris Godwin’s direction repeatedly en route to a playoff appearance and victory over the Eagles. In 2023 the Bucs were a team in transition that didn’t have particularly high expectations but got just enough strong QB play from Mayfield to reach the postseason. The Vikings definitely have a more difficult division than Tampa Bay did last year but you could see the receivers driving Darnold to more success than expected.

The bottom line

The quarterbacks on this list all have enough similarities with Darnold — particularly improved supporting casts — to be convincing that the former Jets draft pick could make an unexpected leap and make the Vikings competitive in 2024. However, the reason that we need to grab this handful of examples is because they are the outliers. Out of 81 QBs who started at least 50 games since 2000, Darnold’s career QB rating is 70th. He’s in the same range with Joey Harrington, Mark Sanchez, Vince Young, David Carr and Blake Bortles.

Still the possibility of a renaissance adds a layer of intrigue that Vikings fans haven’t experienced since Case Keenum in 2017.

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