Nearly two months after arriving in Charlotte, Sam Darnold has everything he needs to feel right at home – well nearly everything.
He’s currently without his bedframe, and he only has half a couch as his furniture continues to follow him from the Big Apple to the Queen City. But otherwise, everything is working out well for the Panthers’ new quarterback, including a level of space and support he’s never had in his NFL career.
As the 3rd overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, Darnold spent the first three seasons of his career with the weight of the New York Jets franchise on his shoulder. Despite coaching and front office instability around him and the on-field consequences of that, Darnold was expected to turn water into wine and the Jets into winners as the “savior” of the franchise. When that didn’t happen, Darnold took the fall and was branded by some as the latest example of Jets quarterbacking futility – Despite many of the team’s issues not being his fault.
Now, as he takes to the field as the Panthers’ quarterback for the first time in Organized Team Activities, Darnold is in a much more preferable situation: He has some of the best skill position talent in the NFL around him and is playing for a coaching staff that has built their foundation on player development and features innovative minds who can surround him with a system that elevates him. Crucially, the bar that has been set for Darnold to become part of the solution in Carolina rather than the solution.
With NFL life now returning to something like normal after a very disrupted 2020, Darnold is having a chance to settle into his new southern comforts but, with that experience of the hyper-pressured environment that came with the being the Jets’ quarterback, Darnold is as well equipped for becoming a franchise quarterback as anyone the Panthers could have hoped to add this offseason.
“I think for me, I’ve always had kind of high expectations for myself first and foremost. Expectations outside of that, to be honest – Besides my teammates and my coaches – it doesn’t really mean a whole lot,” said Darnold. “I think for me, it’s about what we expect as a team, how much we expect to win. For me it’s about completing the ball, getting the team down the field, and scoring touchdowns.”
“That’s really all I care about. And as long as we do that and I do my job, I’m all good.”
Few who subjected themselves to watching the New York Jets could confuse Darnold’s development in Florham Park as being anything but thoroughly botched: After the Dana Point, California native flashed promise towards the end of his rookie season, the Jets made seemingly every misstep they could make to extinguish Darnold’s flame before it ever had a chance to grow.
Darnold ended up becoming collateral damage in the messy end of Adam Gase’s doomed tenure as Jets head coach, as after his completion percentage improved to just 61.9 percent in 2019 this then dipped to 59.6 percent in 2020 (admittedly not a major shift) while throwing for career-lows in yards (2,208) and touchdown passes (nine) to go with 11 interceptions.
Thankfully, Darnold’s development is now the responsibility of Panthers head coach Matt Rhule and his staff. Having shown to be a capable teacher in his first season in Carolina, Rhule is currently in the process of initiating Darnold into the ways of Panther football and what is asked of its quarterback.
On paper, the process of teaching that to a player with three years of experience in the NFL presents more of a challenge than indoctrinating a rookie or otherwise raw player. However, Darnold has presented Rhule with the sort of willing student that makes instilling the mantra of daily improvement a much simpler task.
“All I really ask of our guys is ‘Don’t worry about the results, worry about the trajectory that you’re on. Are you improving daily?’ And for any quarterback, that’s mechanically in their drops and the way that they’re doing things, but also with the way that they process things, progress through things,” Rhule told reporters after practice on Tuesday. “Sam’s on Day Two right now. He’s just so young in what we’re asking him to do, but he’s got a great work ethic.”
“… Every bit of experience that Sam has, he can draw from it. But I think he’s doing a great job of just starting over with us and saying ‘Hey, what’s the cadence? How do you want me to drop? How do you want me to do these things?’ That’s good. That allows us to develop him really from the ground up.”
The first step in that development is teaching Darnold a new way to operate as a quarterback: The Panthers operate a system which asks quarterbacks to move around in the pocket, a change from what was asked of Darnold while he was under center for the Jets.
“He comes in a different system where they were kind of static, and we’re more of a move up in the pocket, slide up in the pocket, throw on rhythm type of a team,” explained Rhule. “We really don’t want him holding the ball and letting it rip. We want him to play in progression, play in timing.”
Darnold is somewhat familiar with that style of play, having done it at times as a rookie playing for former Jets head coach Todd Bowles and offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates. That little bit of experience he has is useful, as it ties into one of Darnold’s goals for his initial on-field work in Carolina: Understanding how to function within his new team’s system and an offense that he can trust.
“I’m going through progressions, understanding where I need to go with the football, and if it’s not there, make a play with my feet,” said Darnold. “I’m just gonna continue what I do, but within the offense. I’m never gonna try to do anything outside of that – If I need to, I will, but the offense and the system is really good.”
“I’m gonna continue to work in that system and complete footballs. And again, if something happens – If an edge rusher gets through or someone comes unblocked, I’m gonna try and make them miss and make plays that way. But other than that, I’m gonna work within the system and play ball.”
The importance of a quarterback playing in a functioning offense – one which features talented players capable of both operating underneath a defense and taking the top off of one, as well as schematic concepts that place stress on a defense and create both big and necessary plays – cannot be understated. At the same time, though, there’s always the risk of it being overstated.
Even if Darnold masters the Panthers’ system, the way he operates outside of it when forced to do so and it’s time for him to make a play is up to him. While some change is necessary for a young quarterback who has yet to taste success in the NFL, there will be times where his own individual touch – times where the game breaks down and becomes “just football” – will make the difference between victory and defeat for Carolina.
What Darnold has done to date has gotten him to the point of being an NFL starting quarterback, and one who is still thought of as having much to offer. And so, as Darnold himself stated, he ultimately needs to focus on trying to become the best version of himself, and not try and push himself into changes that don’t suit him.
“When you get out there on the field, you’ve got to have a flow. You can’t necessarily think about doing something a different way,” said Darnold. “I think I’ve just got to play my style of ball, because that’s why they brought me here. Play my style of ball and make plays the way I do.”
(Top photo via Brandon Todd/Carolina Panthers)