As the world turns and quarterbacks keep moving to new teams by the hour, Panthers fans would be excused for having traumatic flash-backs to a year ago. Seeking an upgrade over Teddy Bridgewater, the Panthers traded three picks, including their 2022 2nd- and 4th-round selections to the Jets for Sam Darnold but, after some early success, the optimism fizzled and, after a disastrous finish to the season, the young QB’s days in Charlotte appear to be numbered.

As Darnold remained a turnover machine, had a completion percentage under 60%, and struggled to throw touchdowns in his last 8 games, you’d figure there’d be little to be proud of. In particular, it would be hard to image that his deep passing numbers would be any more encouraging than the rest of his game. 

As it turns out, it isn’t nearly as bad as you would think.

Photo Credit: Chanelle Smith-Walker/Carolina Panthers

As someone that’s fascinated by deep passing, each year I chart the passing accuracy on throws over 21+ yards in the air past the line of scrimmage for all NFL quarterback. This is what I like to call The Deep Ball Project and, if you’ve been a long time supporter of Riot Report, you may have seen these pieces in the past. Unfortunately, since I began covering the Panthers for Riot Report in late 2018, the franchise hasn’t enjoyed a lot of success when it comes to throwing the ball deep. 

Somehow, against all odds, 2022 Sam Darnold was the closest the Panthers have had to a successful deep passer in that time.

Tying with Dolphins QB Tua Tagovailoa, Sam Darnold’s 50 percent Accuracy Percentage was 14th among 32 quarterbacks in 2021, making him slightly above average. This might not compare to guys like Josh Allen, Justin Herbert, Justin Fields (Who many Panthers fans wanted) and Patrick Mahomes, but it was better than Teddy Bridgewater and leagues better than last place Ben Roethlisberger.

This is beyond baffling for anyone who’s watched the Panthers, myself included. More baffling still is that Darnold came away with just one interception and one dropped interception on deep passes. His receivers failed to bring in 6 accurate passes, or Accurate Incompletions (ACC INC), while the QB himself didn’t throw a single Inaccurate Completion. 

As you can see, Darnold’s percentage spike from a 31.25% completion rate to a 50% accuracy rate is significantly high. 

In fact, Darnold had the third highest differential in Completion Percentage to Accuracy Percentage, only trailing Justin Fields and Lamar Jackson. 6 Accurate Incompletions doesn’t sound like a lot, but in a sport where the margins are often very small indeed, this significant loss in production. Clearly the Panthers had much bigger problems so those 6 plays probably weren’t what cost them a play-off spot, but it shows that Darnold’s deep accuracy actually experienced growth in 2021.

When we break down Darnold’s deep passing based on direction, depth and situation, we are able to identify a few further trends. 

Darnold was very successful on passes of 21-30 yards, where he ranked 5th out of 32 QBs in accuracy. He was also tied with Joe Burrow for first in Accuracy to the middle, being one of two QBs to finish with a perfect 100% there. Incredibly, Darnold’s accuracy was also in the top 10 against pressure, and he somehow didn’t finish way lower than 10th in accuracy to open windows.

Areas where Darnold’s deep passing struggled include on throws of 31+ yards, especially in the 31-40 range where he finished 3rd worst in accuracy. He was also the fourth least accurate passer to his left, though he fared better on throws to the right. Without pressure his precision dropped to 24th, while he was 20th throwing into tight windows.

Even then it’s surprising Darnold didn’t stoop much lower in the accuracy splits, especially considering he was coming off a 2020 season where his accuracy was pretty uninspiring.

Looking at these charts, Darnold took huge strides in deep accuracy against pressure, throws of 21-30 yards, even accuracy without pressure was an improvement. While getting away from Adam Gase didn’t exactly remake him into the star quarterback he was supposed to be, he did have the highest rates of his career as a deep passer, so I guess you can say the Panthers got the most out of him even if it’s not much.

Keeping our feet at 2020, let’s look at Teddy Bridgewater’s 2020 chart to compare to Darnold’s from 2021.

Bridgewater’s 5 Inaccurate Completions were the most from any QB in the 2020-21 Deep Ball Project. His below average arm strength anchored the vertical passing game the Panthers had been trying to build.

Darnold was more accurate under pressure, to the middle, and to the right, though Bridgewater had him beat throwing to his left. He was also more accurate without pressure, throwing into open windows, and on throws of 21-30 yards. 

Though Darnold still has significant room for growth as a deep passer, let alone everything else, there are plays on tape which support the positive numbers, no more so than his deep completion to Ian Thomas late in the Vikings game, where Darnold throws this into a keyhole on a fastball. The arc is low which allows it to zoom into the hands of Thomas in time before the safety over the top can make a play on it. 

Plays like this weren’t as frequent as the Panthers would have hoped last season, but if the Panthers do end up running things back with Darnold in 2022 then plays like this should offer something to try and build around as the Panthers retool on offense under Ben McAdoo. 

It should be noted that Darnold’s accuracy rate should be treated with some caution as, while he may have finished higher in Accuracy Rate than guys like Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady, those guys did more than enough elsewhere to carry their offenses to success in 2021 while Darnold both struggled to do the more mundane aspects of playing quarterback in the NFL effectively.

At the very least it’s encouraging that this coaching staff got the most out of Darnold’s deep accuracy in 2021 without it being a complete disaster. I don’t really expect that to continue, but with a better deep passing QB (perhaps they’ll trade for Kirk Cousins, who knows) the connections could be better. 

We wait and see if the Panthers make a major transaction at the QB position for the third time in as many years in the Matt Rhule era, but at least with Darnold’s rates it could’ve been far worse.

(Top photo via Brandon Todd/Carolina Panthers)

Johnny K
Contributor
In addition to The Riot Report, Johnny Kinsley writes for The Phinsider, Dynasty League Football, and 49ers Hub. He is a devoted member of the Church of Curtis Samuel.