The last time we saw Carolina Panthers QB Sam Darnold starting, he was producing as one of the worst quarterbacks in the NFL. But with PJ Walker injured and Baker Mayfield a lost cause in a lost season, the finally healthy Darnold gets a small shot at redemption.
Since being selected third overall by the New York Jets in the 2018 NFL Draft, no quarterback with 1,000 or more examples had worse outcomes. Darnold was the only QB out of 33 qualified participants with a negative EPA dropbacks. And in that span, only Andy Dalton had a worse CPOE. How bad has Darnold been as a pro? Let’s take a closer look.
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Darnold is probably a bad QB, and that may forever be the case. However, that comes with a caveat. As we’ve seen in 2022 with Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady’s statistical drops, the situation a QB finds themself in is more important to their success than their own ability. And there’s no doubt Darnold has been part of some dumpster-fire coaching staffs and rosters.
He lived with Adam Gase for arguably the most crucial developmental point in a QB’s career in years two and three. So what did he look like when we last saw him, and what does the Panthers’ offense look like now? And what can we expect to see on Sunday when the Panthers take the field with Darnold under center and Mayfield on the bench?
The last time Darnold took the field for the Panthers, he went 29 of 42 for 210 yards against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Carolina offensive line was… present.
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The Panthers couldn’t block anybody last season, forcing offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo and company to dumb things down to a high-school level. Honestly, it looked a bit like Matt Corral’s offense at Mississippi. But NFL offenses can’t solely survive on throws at the line of scrimmage on run plays.
Darnold himself looked as he always has. He’s got some magical escapability ala Tony Romo, with all of the arrogance in his ability that made the former Cowboys QB make crippling mistakes early in his career.
Only Justin Fields, Matt Ryan, and Zach Wilson were pressured more often than Darnold a season ago. Each of the top three has in common: their ability to create their own pressure. And while at times Darnold will do so, he’s much more comfortable getting the ball out quickly.
In other words, they were pressured more often, but Darnold was pressured most independently of his own actions. That won’t be the case this year, and it will be exciting to see Darnold’s development behind a competent pass-blocking OL for the first time in his career.
The Panthers Offense in 2022
Obviously, things still aren’t great in Carolina. They’re 29th in offensive EPA per play, and they rank dead last in passing EPA success rate. However, that’s largely a result of Mayfield’s inability to be an NFL-level quarterback.
Carolina isn’t forced into one-dimensional RPO looks anymore. While that might be something McAdoo leans on with Darnold at the helm, it won’t be because the personnel surrounding the QB stinks to high heaven. If we’re inundated with them, it’s because those are the looks Darnold is comfortable in. That would be a red flag.
Teams need the dropback game to work. Most teams don’t look to attack vertically from these concepts, given the discrepancy between the defensive line and offensive line talent in the league.
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But the quick game from the gun is important for moving the sticks, and seeing how Darnold manages horizontal spacing concepts could be what ultimately gets him consideration for a QB competition somewhere in 2023.
Carolina mixes up shotgun and under-center looks decently well. Not many teams run straight under-center dropbacks these days, but Carolina mixes that in, and Walker operated it decently. It’s unlikely we see Darnold do the same, given his background, but we’ve seen it in 2022.
They’re also running more hard play-action and bootlegs from under center, and with the offensive line upgrades, we could see Darnold show off his arm more than he has since entering the league.
While it would be foolish to think Darnold will magically turn things around into being a franchise QB, we should finally see him in a tenable situation.
panthers vs. Broncos Week 12 Matchups
Darnold’s Week 12 performance shouldn’t be held against him. Denver has one of, if not the best, defense in the NFL, thanks to an absolutely outrageous group on the back end.
They have intelligent members of the secondary with outstanding skills to match. If Darnold somehow becomes the first QB this season to actually dominate Denver, start building his statue of him.
Rather, his performances coming out of the bye week will be more important, should he get that opportunity.