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Sam Darnold Couldn’t Save the Jets, but the Panthers Can Salvage His Career

If the Panthers are so desperate for a franchise quarterback, why did they trade for Darnold? The answer lies somewhere between the high cost of the current market and Carolina’s belief in its culture and coaching staff.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On Monday, the New York Jets traded quarterback Sam Darnold to the Carolina Panthers for a 2021 sixth-round draft pick and 2022 second- and fourth-round picks. The move affirms what was already obvious for the Jets: New York will take a quarterback, likely Zach Wilson, with its no. 2 selection in this month’s draft. It also affirms their failure to develop Darnold into a franchise quarterback, a mistake they don’t want to repeat. After taking Darnold with the no. 3 selection in 2018, the Jets will soon become the first team since at least 1967 to take two quarterbacks in the top three picks in a four-year span.

That’s not ideal. But while Darnold’s development, or lack thereof, certainly belongs on the CVS-receipt-length list of things the Jets have done wrong over the past three years—which includes Gregg Williams’s zero blitz, Le’Veon Bell’s contract, cutting Pierre Desir three weeks before he was nominated for Walter Payton Man of the Year, and Adam Gase’s employment—spending a high pick on a quarterback does not. The Jets needed a quarterback in 2018 and had a high pick to obtain one in a deep draft class. They either chose the wrong player or lacked the infrastructure necessary to give him a chance to succeed. How this trade works out for the Panthers depends on which of those factors was more significant.

A team in the Panthers’ position can’t afford to do nothing. In addition to the draft capital they sent the Jets, Carolina is expected to pick up Darnold’s $18.8 million fifth-year option for 2022 to have him under control for the next two seasons. That outlay falls somewhere in between significant and exorbitant when it comes to quarterback compensation, which is fine.

Darnold was not the first quarterback Carolina expressed interest in. The Panthers tried to trade for Matt Stafford before Detroit dealt him to the Rams. They were reportedly interested in Deshaun Watson after he demanded a trade in January, but any move for the Texans quarterback appears very unlikely. Watson faces 22 civil lawsuits from women who say he sexually assaulted them or engaged in inappropriate conduct. Last Friday, Houston police announced they were investigating a complaint concerning Watson, though they did not specify the nature of the complaint.

The Panthers have the no. 8 pick in the draft, but their hopes of acquiring one of the top quarterback prospects was complicated by the 49ers’ trade up to no. 3, and the fact that a division rival, Atlanta, holds the no. 4 pick. With their options dwindling, they turned their attention to Darnold. This is the part where we must acknowledge that nobody knows how good Sam Darnold is. He was a coveted prospect coming out of USC and has the ability to make excellent throws, but he’s never had a good NFL season. His career completion rate is below 60 percent. He’s thrown 39 interceptions and fumbled 20 times since 2018. He’s been sacked at least 30 times in each of his three seasons. Once, after throwing an interception, he was caught on a live microphone saying he was “seeing ghosts” on the field. On a potentially related note, however, Darnold has only ever played for the Jets, including the past two years with Gase as his head coach.

Since Darnold entered the NFL, the Jets have averaged the second-fewest points in the league and are last in total yards, yards per play, first downs, third downs converted, and third-down conversion percentage. All of that is bad; some of it is Darnold’s fault, some of it isn’t, and anyone who says they know precisely how much blame to put on either party is lying. The Panthers are hoping that Darnold’s past struggles are more attributable to his situation than his abilities and that their coaching staff will be a significant upgrade to help him improve, which is understandable considering where Darnold is coming from.

The Panthers should believe in their staff. Owner David Tepper signed head coach Matt Rhule from the college ranks with a seven-year, $60 million contract in January of 2020 to stop Rhule from even interviewing with the Giants. Carolina also hired Joe Brady from college, making him its offensive coordinator after one season on LSU’s staff. Brady has emerged as one of the best play designers in football and Carolina was lucky to keep him in house this offseason after he interviewed for NFL head-coaching vacancies. The Panthers are betting they can unlock more of Darnold’s potential than the Jets were able to. They don’t have to be miracle workers to make Darnold a competent starting quarterback. He still possesses the physical tools that made him such a prized prospect, and at 23, he’s still six months younger than last year’s no. 1 pick, Joe Burrow, whom Brady worked with at LSU in 2019. The Panthers have spent and acted aggressively to put together an infrastructure that should help a player like Darnold succeed. That infrastructure is about to be put to the test.

Darnold will reunite with Robby Anderson in Carolina, arguably the best receiver he played with during his Jets tenure, who’s now effectively Carolina’s third receiving option behind Christian McCaffrey and D.J. Moore. The Panthers may have made this trade because they didn’t think they could get high enough to take one of the top quarterbacks—at least not high enough to get one whom they like—but given the expected run on quarterbacks in the top four picks, they should be able to still pick a premier position player at no. 8.

Given Carolina’s efforts to create a good team culture and build a good roster, it owed it to itself to keep trying to land a quarterback even after its initial ambitious overtures didn’t work out—the biggest risk is getting stuck in the NFL’s version of purgatory. Darnold may not work out either, but he likely has higher upside than Teddy Bridgewater, Carolina’s returning starter. The Panthers have intimated that they’d like to move on from Bridgewater, who they can try to trade.

To paraphrase Forrest Gump, quarterbacks are like a box of chocolates. It’s the most individually important position in a sport where dozens of variables impact every play. A good quarterback is the difference between success and failure; knowing why one is good is extremely difficult, but is ultimately the difference between continued success and failure. You never know what you’re going to get. That’s why any team, especially one that is poised to be good, has to try. There’s a significant cost in trading for Darnold, but the cost of doing nothing could have wound up being much higher.