How Jets QB Sam Darnold turned a major flaw into a strength

Sam Darnold worked hard to erase his reputation as a fumbler in college, and it's worked so far. Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire

A look at what's happening around the New York Jets:

1. In good hands: Remember the pre-draft rap on Sam Darnold? He's a fumbler. Gets sloppy in the pocket. Reckless with the ball. Small hands (9⅜ inches).

Numbers don't lie: He fumbled 12 times in his final season at USC, losing nine. In two years as the starter, it was 21 fumbles and 14 lost.

When he interviewed with teams before the draft, Darnold vowed to correct the issue, telling them it was his No. 1 priority. It wasn't just lip service. Six games into his career, he ranks among the most sure-handed quarterbacks in the league.

Darnold has been credited with only one fumble, and even that was a technicality -- a botched handoff with Bilal Powell in Week 2. Darnold was charged because he was the last player with possession. Otherwise, his ballhandling has been impeccable. He's like Stefon Diggs in that car insurance commercial: Everything sticks to his hands. He's one of only four quarterbacks yet to fumble on a sack. The others are Drew Brees, Patrick Mahomes and Philip Rivers, according to ESPN Stats & Information data.

"He's trying to keep two hands on the ball and making sure he's aware in the pocket," Jets coach Todd Bowles told ESPN. "That's big. He was working on it a lot in the pre-draft stuff. Even when we went to the workouts, he was trying to hold it with two hands. Jeremy [Bates, offensive coordinator] has done a great job, making sure he doesn't forget his mechanics and making sure he stays conscious of everything he's doing."

Noted quarterback guru Jordan Palmer, who trained Darnold for three months before the draft, did extensive film work and noticed the former USC star had a tendency to take his left hand off the ball as soon as he sensed trouble and started to move in the pocket. Palmer went to work, changing Darnold's muscle memory.

"It's not about stopping a bad habit," Palmer told ESPN. "It's about replacing it with a good one."

During his training sessions with Palmer, Darnold was instructed to hold a football in his left hand between practice reps, when he was just standing around. The objective, Palmer said, was to get him familiar with the idea of gripping it with his off hand. During certain throwing drills, Palmer tried to disrupt Darnold's concentration by randomly running at him, like an unblocked pass-rusher. He wanted to see how Darnold reacted, whether he removed his left hand from the ball.

"I want him to feel trouble when he takes his hand off the ball," Palmer said. "I was sirens blaring and red lights flashing in his head."

Palmer saw immediate improvement. After the draft, the job went to Bates, who made it a point of emphasis throughout the spring. So far, so good. No sirens.

2. Sheldon's back: Sunday marks the return of Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, who played with the Jets from 2013 to 2016. Nearly 14 months ago, general manager Mike Maccagnan made one of his best moves, trading Richardson to the Seattle Seahawks for a second-round pick and wide receiver Jermaine Kearse.

The Jets parlayed that draft pick into Darnold, using it as part of the package that allowed them to trade up before the 2018 draft. Without that second-rounder, they might have had to part with their 2019 first-round pick, which would've been painful. The Richardson deal made all the sense in the world, especially since the Jets had no intention of re-signing him. His off-the-field issues were a big concern.

The Seahawks let him walk as a free agent, and he wound up signing a one-year deal with the Vikings -- which speaks volumes about the market's perception of Richardson. Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said he's happy with Richardson, calling him "a model person and a model citizen." Richardson has only one sack, but he leads the team with 30 quarterback hurries. Interestingly, he played a season-low 37 snaps last week.

You can bet he'd give anything to wreck this game for the Jets.

3. You like that? Because he spurned the Jets in free agency, quarterback Kirk Cousins probably will get a rude welcome from the MetLife faithful. Yeah, he left $6 million on the table by picking the Vikings over the Jets, but can you blame him? The Vikings are a Super Bowl contender and the Jets could be years away.

By the way, Cousins hasn't enjoyed his trips to MetLife. The former Redskins quarterback is 1-4, with four touchdown passes and nine interceptions.

4. Speaking of which: Since we're talking fumbles and Cousins, know this: The $86 million man already has six fumbles (five lost). Since 2015, when he became the Redskins' starter, he has a league-high 37 fumbles. The Jets are well aware of that trend, and they'll be on a mission to separate him from the ball.

5. Coach in De-mand: The Vikings' offensive coordinator is John DeFilippo. Ring a bell? Bowles wanted DeFilippo to be his offensive coordinator in 2017 -- and the feeling was mutual, I'm told -- but he couldn't pry him away from the Philadelphia Eagles. At the time, he was the Eagles' quarterbacks coach, and they wouldn't let him out of his contract because they wanted to maintain continuity for Carson Wentz.

Bowles, who offered unsolicited praise of DeFilippo this week, wound up hiring John Morton, whom he fired after one season.

DeFilippo, the Jets' assistant quarterbacks coach in 2009, probably will be a head-coaching candidate after the season. If things go south for Bowles, it wouldn't be a shock if DeFilippo is on the Jets' radar.

6. Code red: When a team struggles in the red zone (see: Jets), the blame usually goes on the quarterback. That shouldn't be the case in this situation, as the team ranks 13th in red zone passing (based on Total QBR). No, the real problem is the running game. There is none.

The Jets are averaging a league-low 1.23 yards per carry inside the 20 -- 37 yards on 30 attempts. That explains why they're dead last in red zone efficiency. A lot goes into the running game, but the blame here has to go on the offensive line, which is not winning at the line of scrimmage.

7. Stat of the week: The Jets are 3-0 when Darnold attempts 30 or fewer passes, 0-3 when he attempts more than 30. Based on that, it's not hard to figure out what they need to do.

8. Big men, big check: The defensive line continued its tradition of periodic feasts, dining earlier in the week at a high-end steak house in Morristown, New Jersey. This time, the rookies had to pick up the bill, which totaled more than $6,000, I'm told. Yes, it was an expensive night for Nathan Shepherd and Folorunso Fatukasi. One dinner mole said a rare bottle of cognac was responsible for nearly half the bill. Say this for the defensive linemen: They have expensive taste.

9. They're ranked where? The folks at ESPN Stats & Information started tracking efficiency scores in 2006, ranking offense, defense and special-teams units based on a variety of statistical categories. It makes for fun comparisons.

This is hard to believe, but the Jets' current defense is ranked No. 31 out of 416 defenses in that span. Evidently, the researchers place an emphasis on takeaways (the Jets have 15) because New York's defense is yielding a lot of yards. In case you're wondering, the Jets' highest-ranked defense is the 2009 outfit, No. 10 on the list. That was a heckuva unit.

The rankings shine a light on the Jets' improvement on special teams. The current group is ranked No. 29 out of 416, way up from last season (No. 174).

10. Fun fact: Kicker Jason Myers is averaging 10.5 points per game, the best in team history. Kicker Jim Turner averaged 10.4 in 1968, the Super Bowl season.