FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — After the get-acquainted small talk, New York Jets coach Adam Gase turned his first sitdown with Sam Darnold into an infomercial. It could have been called, “The Adam Gase Way: How I Plan To Turn You Into A Star.”
Gase had prepared specific cut-ups from his coaching past, and he punched up the plays on a monitor in his first-floor office at One Jets Drive. Peyton Manning appeared on the screen, from his Denver Broncos days, circa 2013. Gase was Manning’s offensive coordinator, only 35 and fast-tracking toward big things in the NFL. You might say he was the Sam Darnold of coaching, shiny and full of promise. This was before his reputation was stained by a three-year run with the Miami Dolphins that ended with a pink slip.
So on a relaxed day in April, Gase was sharing his glory days with his new prodigy (really, his first prodigy), showing Darnold how good he could be in Gase’s offense. The emphasis was on tempo. Look how Peyton does it. Darnold was pleasantly surprised to learn that Gase’s offense, in its purest form, is a no-huddle attack. It reminded him of high school and college, when he thrived in hurry-up systems. To use one of Darnold’s favorite words, he was “stoked” after meeting with his new coach.
Darnold and Gase. They’re the new “it” couple in New Jersey and the key to the future of the franchise.
Personality-wise, they couldn’t be more different. Darnold is California chill, always relaxed, never flustered and uncommonly mature for a freckle-faced 22-year-old who grew up in a beach town. Gase is uniquely wired, even for his profession. He’s so intense that he likes to take a hit of smelling salts before each game, so intense that, according to a recent story in The Athletic, he left his wife in the operating room soon after she gave birth via C-section so he could get back to practice.
“We might be different personalities, but we have that one commonality — and that’s football,” Darnold said. “As long as we’re on the same team and we’re trying to win games, we’re going to get along. We’ll be solid. I think the whole NFL will notice that by midseason.”
The relationship began in earnest in the spring, when they talked tempo and became fast friends. Right now, at this point in their careers, they need each other.
Darnold, coming off a roller-coaster rookie year that ended on a rise, is expected to be the franchise messiah. In theory, he should flourish under Gase, the team’s first offensive-minded head coach since Rich Kotite (1995-96). The organization hopes that Gase is to Darnold what Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay is to Jared Goff — a progressive thinker who can accentuate his quarterback’s strengths.
It will be a radical change from Todd Bowles, a play-not-to-lose coach who entrusted Darnold to an offensive coordinator (Jeremy Bates) who was out of coaching from 2013 to 2016. Bates appeared overmatched at times, and his inability to communicate with the entire offense sparked frustration among players, team sources said. Former backup Josh McCown buffered Darnold from the dysfunction.
Former Jets star Keyshawn Johnson, who knows Bates from their days with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, said it was a mistake to hire him, claiming, “You don’t take a guy out of the middle of the mountains and make him your offensive coordinator.” (Bates hiked the Rockies during his sabbatical.) “I mean, come on. You don’t do that. Bates coached me in Tampa, and he’s cool, but I’m not going to get a dude who was shooting deer and now, all of a sudden, he becomes OC, and my livelihood depends on it.”
Gase, too, spent time in the Rockies, and that’s where he made his bones as an offensive coach. Some say he rode Manning’s coattails, but there’s no denying that his game plans got the Canton-bound quarterback to perform at a historic level — a league-record 55 touchdown passes in 2013. Gase went from Manning to a set-in-his-ways Jay Cutler (Chicago Bears) to a pedestrian Ryan Tannehill (Dolphins) before landing the golden ticket with a gifted, still-impressionable Darnold.
Gase sees an instinctive, quick-thinking player capable of leading a fast-break offense. He also loves Darnold’s appetite for knowledge.
“He’s good at asking, ‘How would Peyton do this?'” Gase said.
Said Darnold, “I’m always in his office, bugging him. It’s nice to be able to have that guy to talk to.”
Much like Manning was as a player, Gase can be obsessive. Darnold said he once received a midnight text from Gase in the spring, complete with a breakdown of a particular play from that day’s practice. Like clockwork, Darnold receives late-night emails that contain play sheets and practice scripts for the next day. Darnold is a sponge, and Gase is his water faucet.
“It’s cool, man,” Darnold said. “He does his own thing, and he’s been doing it for a long time. I don’t want to mess with his flow.”
“It works perfectly,” he added. “It’s funny. He can be intense and all that stuff — which he is, for sure — but when we sit down and we really get talking about some stuff in the film room, he can be very calm. He’s very chill to talk to.”
Darnold didn’t have that kind of relationship with the previous coach because Bowles was preoccupied with the defense. Now he has a coach who sees the game through the eyes of the quarterback, which is bound to help his development. In addition to X’s and O’s, he and Gase talk about organizational culture and team building. It makes Darnold feel invested in the process.
At first, Gase wasn’t sure how Darnold would react to hard coaching. That perception changed on the practice field in the spring, when he scolded Darnold for botching a pass-protection scheme.
“He turned around and looked at me and said, ‘It’s about time you yelled at me. I’ve been waiting for this for the last few months,'” Gase recalled with a smile.
Now, with Darnold, Gase wants to recreate what he had in Denver. He wants to hit the fast-forward button as he looks forward. You saw it in the preseason opener against the New York Giants. The Jets came out in no-huddle and needed only 3:07 for a seven-play touchdown drive — a rate of 26.7 seconds per play. They did the same thing against the Atlanta Falcons in the second preseason game, albeit at a slightly slower pace.
When Darnold heard the hurry-up plan in April, he was ecstatic.
“That got me excited because I’ve been in an offense where last year was more slow-paced,” he said. “We were huddling and breaking the huddle with 15 seconds [on the play clock], which is more like an old-school, pro-style offense, which I was fine with. I thought we executed well at times. In high school and college, I was in those fast-paced, no-huddle offenses. I just kind of felt more comfortable doing that kind of stuff. It’s going to be a lot of fun this year.”
A no-huddle has a few advantages for a young quarterback. It simplifies the defensive looks because the defense doesn’t have time to make pre-snap adjustments. It also allows Darnold to have Gase in his ear. When he gets to the line of scrimmage with more than 15 seconds on the play clock (when the coach-quarterback radio shuts off), Darnold can receive “tips and reminders” from Gase on the sideline. Those, he said, are a huge help before the snap.
Former NFL quarterback and ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky believes Darnold can thrive in an up-tempo system because he’s “a frantic player. He’s got great second-reactionary attributes. But a lot of times, when a quarterback is playing with a little bit of tempo and no-huddle, it just seems like they’re more focused on getting the ball out of their hands quicker. There’s a little bit less thinking that goes on and a little bit more reacting that goes on, so that suits him as a player.”
The downside to a fast-paced attack is that it will tax the defense if the three-and-outs start to pile up. It’s easy to see that becoming an issue for fiery defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, whose mentor — Buddy Ryan — once punched out an offensive coordinator for that very thing.
Darnold has the innate ability to remain calm while processing information at a rapid rate. Some quarterbacks freak out when it’s chaotic; the former USC star is … well, chill. That composure, Gase said, makes it easier to call plays and communicate during games. It also could help Darnold reduce the number of tight-window throws. The faster he plays, the less time the defense has to react.
In 2018, nearly 20% of Darnold’s attempts were of the tight-window variety. That was the fourth-highest rate in the league among qualifying passers, per NFL Next Gen Stats. (A tight window is defined as less than one yard of separation between receiver and nearest defender when the ball arrives.) Some of that is on the receivers, whose job is to separate, but the Jets’ hope is that the new-style offense will allow Darnold to make quicker decisions.
Darnold also needs to make better decisions, especially on first and second downs. Ten of his 15 interceptions came on the early downs, an unusually high number when you consider pass coverages often don’t get sophisticated until third down. Gase, well aware of this trend, has stressed the importance of using checkdown options instead of forcing the ball to his No. 1 read. With Le’Veon Bell in the backfield, Darnold has one of the best pass-catching backs in the league.
“I can’t sit here and say Adam Gase looks like a totally dynamic playcaller right now,” Orlovsky said. “He seems to have a good pulse for what his team is and hiding some of the deficiencies, but I want to see it on a consistent basis.”
It all comes back to Darnold, whose development will determine if the Jets — a non-playoff team since 2010 — can match the preseason hype. Their young franchise quarterback is in a good place, knowing the man in the head coach’s chair is “hyper-focused” (Darnold’s description) and hell-bent on restoring his reputation as an offensive guru.
“It’s fun to hear his ideas on building a culture and building a team, especially being a young guy who wants to do great things here in New York and with the Jets,” Darnold said. “It’s cool to have a coach come in and explain what he sees for the next five years or the next 10 years. Hopefully, we can be in this for the long run together.”