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Analysis: Understanding what’s wrong with Sam Darnold and if the Panthers can fix it

·6 min read

As usual, my mother said it best on Sunday during the Panthers’ 25-3 loss to the New York Giants.

“Jeez,” she sighed. “Carolina doesn’t look like a 3-3 football team at all.”

She knows ball but this wasn’t a eureka! moment. Instead, she stated the obvious while unknowingly indicting coach Matt Rhule and GM Scott Fitterer’s Sam Darnold experiment.

So much went wrong for Carolina against the Giants’ 27th-ranked defense. Before pulling Darnold for backup P.J. Walker, the Panthers punted seven times, surrendered a safety and threw an interception. Those shortcomings don’t all fall on Darnold but plenty does. He’s playing like he’s seeing ghosts again. Yet this has nothing to do with Bill Belichick or Halloween.

It’s OK if Panthers fans are more scared of their current quarterback situation than of Michael Myers. I’m about to sound like the new guy but don’t lose hope yet. Instead, let’s unpack why Darnold struggled mightily, what it means for the Panthers’ offense and theorize whether this is fixable.

Sam Darnold is not trusting his eyes

Because the NFL’s All-22 film isn’t available until 24 to 48 hours after games, we’ll be reviewing tape from Week 5 and 6. After re-watching those games and comparing them to Sunday’s performance, it’s clear Darnold hasn’t been comfortable since Christian McCaffrey exited in Week 3.

He’s playing skittish. In his first three games, Darnold averaged nearly 300 passing yards. He accounted for six total touchdowns and only two turnovers. Over the past four weeks, his yardage average dropped by 100 and his turnovers quadrupled.

Which is why it doesn’t matter what losing-streak Darnold tape we watch. In fact, going backward helped solidify trends. For example, this incomplete play-action pass versus the Vikings highlights his undisciplined eyes.

Carolina faced a 2nd-and-15 from their own 32. Under center in a balanced formation (two condensed receivers and two tight ends to each side), Darnold (14) motioned tight end Tommy Tremble (82) behind him. Notice how Tremble slowed before the ball was snapped. That’s poor timing. It lessens the run fake. Vikings middle linebacker Eric Kendricks (54) hardly steps toward the line of scrimmage and instead accurately diagnosed a throw.

It’s a small error. But subtle mistakes show up too often within this Joe Brady offense. These mistakes are not Darnold’s fault but do add to his struggles.

Back to the play. Darnold took a five-step drop and looked left. Robby Anderson (11) doesn’t open versus cornerback Patrick Peterson (7). That’s OK. Darnold has another deep curl to his right via DJ Moore (2). But Darnold doesn’t see him because his eyes freeze. He’s locked on Anderson and didn’t follow his progression.

Without improved footwork, Darnold won’t shake this rut. The above video was an example of poor eye placement but with better foot discipline, his eyes would’ve naturally shifted right.

Too often Darnold doesn’t compute what he sees. In the fourth quarter versus Minnesota, Darnold missed an Anderson touchdown. Carolina sat on the Vikings’ 5-yard line with 4:52 to play. With a bunched trips formation to his right and Moore isolated left, Darnold took the snap. Brady called an excellent play to hold both of the Vikings’ outside defensive backs by sending receiver Brandon Zylstra (16) flat. Then Tremble hooked at the goal line, leaving Anderson one-on-one with an inside-shaded linebacker. Minnesota’s single-high safety had no chance defending the corner route.

Even if it’s not a high-low read, Darnold should peek at Anderson before bailing.

Even with McCaffrey, the Panthers still struggled in the red zone. Carolina entered Sunday converting 59% (19th best) of their red-zone tries, and didn’t score a touchdown in New York. Their lone red-zone trip ended with a field goal. They reached the 25-yard line late in the second quarter but Darnold threw an interception.

When the field shrinks, so do the Panthers.

Sam Darnold’s footwork is inconsistent

Those plays are worrisome because Darnold had protection and still didn’t quarterback his pocket. This next example shows his uncomfortable drop-back jitters. Versus the Eagles, Darnold missed receiver Terrace Marshall Jr. (88) on a deep corner route. Watch his drop back. Sure, the pocket compressed but there isn’t anything smooth about it. Marshall opened from the No. 3 slot position but Darnold climbed the pocket with choppy feet.

Once he released it, his shoulders were too open and his feet scattered. Thus, the ball sails.

Panthers’ playmakers aren’t making plays

After Week 3, tackle Cam Erving said the Panthers are not the Carolina Christian McCaffreys. Erving is a proud professional and should feel that way. Unfortunately, Brady and Rhule haven’t proven their concepts work without their walking mismatch.

Carolina Panthers tight end Tommy Tremble is a rookie with potential.
Carolina Panthers tight end Tommy Tremble is a rookie with potential.

Just as problematic, Moore keeps facing double coverage while Anderson isn’t consistently winning his matchups. That puts pressure on Tremble and Ian Thomas, who aren’t No. 1 tight ends yet. Most disappointing is that the Panthers have nine drops over their past two games. Those mistakes aren’t on Darnold, Rhule or Brady.

Sam Darnold does not trust his protection

Fitterer and Rhule vowed to supply Darnold with what he lacked with the New York Jets — protection by an offensive line. They’ve failed to follow through thus far. Darnold’s bad habits can be rectified with consistent offensive line play. However, aside from miraculous internal development, the Panthers have few options to correct those issues this season. This means an uncomfortable and often-hit Darnold will continue to face problematic drop backs like this.

Against Minnesota, the Panthers fell for a crafty loop by defensive tackle James Lynch (92). Running back Chuba Hubbard followed his pass protection rules and stayed glued to Kendricks, the Vikings middle linebacker. Essentially, he screened guard Michael Jordan and freed Lynch. With Hubbard and Jordan doubling Kendricks, Darnold didn’t stand a chance.

This was one of the more complex sacks the Panthers have allowed. There are several examples of interior linemen simply losing their one-on-one off the snap. According to Football Outsiders DVOA metric which measures efficiency, the Panthers rank 23rd in pass protection. The tape agrees.

What we learned

The greatest movie of all time once said “The night is darkest just before the dawn.”

Sunday felt grim and looked bleak. But Darnold’s play can improve should McCaffrey return.

Is he the Panthers’ long-term solution at quarterback? Probably not. But he’ll get plenty more chances to demonstrate he is. That’s why they play the game, to prove themselves right and doubters wrong. Either Brady and Rhule flex some offensive innovation centered around attention to detail and wholesome football education or it’ll be more than just Darnold on their way out of Carolina.

Again, I’m not from around these parts but I’m confident the Panthers’ offense will improve, starting with Darnold. And if I’m wrong, then once again Mom knows best.

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