When the New York Jets traded quarterback Sam Darnold to the Carolina Panthers, it marked the end of an era. Not much of an era for New York—if anything, an era they’d like to forget—but rather, an era for the New England Patriots. In three games against Darnold-led offenses, Belichick’s defense surrendered 17 total points, grabbed six picks, surrendered one passing touchdown, allowed a completion percentage of 53.2 percent, and allowed only 5.5 yards per attempt. In 2019, the Patriots famously delivered the “seeing ghosts” game: a four-interception game that had Darnold himself admitting that Belichick had his number.
Well, Belichick still has it. The Patriots got another crack at Darnold when the Jets traded him to the Panthers, and Belichick did what he always did against the young quarterback: He dominated. In Sunday’s 24-6 loss to the Patriots, Darnold completed fewer than half of his passes, averaged 5.2 yards per attempt, and threw three interceptions and no touchdowns.
Belichick’s defense stymieing a shaky quarterback is hardly news in the NFL (that’s been going on for a while). But it feels like Darnold has been playing Belichick on a weekly basis. In the past five games, Darnold has completed only 83 of his 160 passes (51.9 percent) for 797 yards (4.98 yards per attempt). He’s thrown two touchdowns and eight interceptions and taken 11 sacks. Carolina has generated four offensive touchdowns through the past five games, one of which started on its opponent’s 18-yard line.
This is definitely horrible—but it’s also not new. In a four-game, Patriots-less stretch last season (weeks 3 to 8, with absences during weeks 5 and 6), Darnold completed 70 of 124 pass attempts (56.5 percent) for 5.25 yards an attempt, with one touchdown and five interceptions and a whopping 15 sacks. It would be nice to say that this is the worst stretch of Darnold’s career and that the Panthers are rightfully surprised to see him playing this way. That simply isn’t the case. This is what the Panthers paid for.
The Panthers and the proponents of the Darnold trade alike believed a better offensive environment would unlock Darnold. But the Panthers barely invested in their offensive line after the Darnold acquisition, despite the fact that many of Darnold’s failings were highlighted by the poor offensive line in New York. Darnold has never had a single-season passer rating above league average when pressured in his career; he’s currently 25th of 35 qualifying quarterbacks in 2021. Meanwhile, the Panthers’ offensive line is third worst in the league in ESPN’s pass rush win rate.
The stronger pass catchers haven’t done much for Darnold, either. Carolina hoped that Darnold would reestablish chemistry with Robby Anderson, who the Panthers had signed away from the Jets in free agency before the 2020 season: Anderson has 19 catches on 53 targets (35.8 percent), cutting his catch percentage almost in half from last season’s number (69.9 percent). Darnold has missed Anderson on so many deep opportunities that tempers flared on the sideline against the Patriots.
Robby Anderson was not happy with Sam Darnold— PFF (@PFF) November 7, 2021
Anderson’s frustration is reflected at the coaching level, as head coach Matt Rhule has already benched him once before for backup quarterback P.J. Walker, and did not commit to Darnold as his starting quarterback during his postgame presser. It’s also reflected at the front office and ownership level, as Carolina took a long look at trading for Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson before the trade deadline.
Carolina’s coaching staff and front office isn’t trying to get themselves out of a bad hand dealt by someone else: This is a sticky wicket of their own creation. The Panthers traded a sixth-round draft pick in the 2021 draft, as well as a second- and a fourth-round selection in the 2022 draft, for Darnold in early April. Later that month, the team sent 2020 starter Teddy Bridgewater to the Broncos for just a sixth-round pick. Those moves came after the Panthers had coached Alabama quarterback Mac Jones at the Senior Bowl—a player Rhule said this week he “knew was going to be a longtime pro” after that game. That was with the eighth pick already in hand and Jones, Justin Fields, and Trey Lance all potentially on the board. On the season, Bridgewater ranks seventh in EPA per play, Jones ranks 19th, and Darnold ranks 27th. Make no bones about it: The Panthers had a plethora of quarterback options on the table. They chose Darnold.
The Panthers’ endeavor to secure Darnold as their starting quarterback doesn’t so much put his poor play into focus, but rather the Panthers’ gross misstep. What, in Darnold’s play through the first half of the season, could possibly have taken this coaching staff and front office by surprise? The mistake-riddled, unexplosive passing attack captained by Darnold in 2021 is precisely the mistake-riddled, unexplosive passing attack he captained for each of the past three seasons. Yet somehow, the Panthers have gone from wanting this player, to wanting anyone but this player.
That’s not even the most frightening bit. Similar arguments made last offseason for Darnold’s stalling development could be made again today. He’d look better if the Panthers could fix their offensive line. A key injury to offensive cornerstone Christian McCaffrey changed the structure of the team altogether, and McCaffrey’s return should spell easier days for the Panthers’ passing game. The Panthers committed financially to Darnold’s fifth-year option of $18.858 million for 2022 almost immediately after trading for him—a flabbergasting decision then, an even flabbergasting-er decision now. Despite the Panthers’ public frustration with Darnold, no team is better positioned to fool themselves into a projected improvement in his game. All it takes is a little positive Anderson regression and the McCaffrey boost.
Coaches love to believe they can change how players play; general managers love to believe their coaches are capable of that. But the iron remains hot for only a small window of time. Darnold’s age has long been cited as a reason for continued hope—he’s still only 24—but at this point, he’s been a starting quarterback for 3.5 NFL seasons and two NCAA seasons. He’s thrown more than 2,300 passes since 2016. At this point, his habits are so deeply entrenched that no coaching is changing either the quality or style of his play. Clever scheming can work around it, but Darnold is what he is.
And since Darnold is what he is, the Panthers are, too. They’re a team lost somewhere in the gray area, with enough good coaches and players to be plucky, even dangerous at times, but never legit. Never real. They’re stuck in a QB purgatory of their own making, and they don’t have an escape route available.