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Sam Darnold was mocked and memed, but Panthers’ gamble on a rejected QB is paying off

·4 min read

Other than the one acid flashback to his travails with his previous team, when Sam Darnold essentially handed the football to an opposing lineman like a loaf of bread, it was difficult to see how this was a quarterback once mocked and memed, dismissed and derided.

Even the Carolina Panthers’ bargain-basement acquisition of the quarterback from the New York Jets was accompanied by shrugs and snickers, the offseason equivalent of where you go when you’ve got nowhere else to go.

Yet here we are two weeks into the season, the Panthers are 2-0 after Sunday’s 26-7 win over the New Orleans Saints and Darnold looks not merely competent but confident, not merely useful but impactful. He looks like the quarterback he was supposed to be coming out of USC.

He looks, dare we say, good?

Other than that one bizarre giveaway, he has looked nothing like the bumbling, stumbling mess he was with the Jets, although given the way things are going up there with Zach Wilson — a week after the Panthers left tire tracks across his chest, the rookie threw four picks on his first 10 attempts Sunday — it certainly seems like the Jets were more of the problem than Darnold ever was.

“As he learns this offense and gets comfortable with it, there’s so much opportunity for him to just sling the ball,” Panthers tight end Dan Arnold said. “That’s what he is. He’s a premier quarterback in my eyes. He’s a guy who can fit it into tight windows and get the ball where it needs to go.”

It’s a measure of just how bad things were that when Darnold was asked Sunday if this was the first time in his career he’s been 2-0, he said he didn’t know. The answer: he started 1-1, 0-2 and 0-2 with the Jets, who won a total of 13 games in Darnold’s three seasons there.

And yes, Darnold has had a soft introduction to his new team. The Jets had no chance. The Saints were ravaged by COVID-19 absences. But still, the Saints made Aaron Rodgers look like Fred Rogers last week, and no one’s putting Darnold and Rodgers in the same sentence. Whatever weaknesses the Saints had, Darnold found them, going 26-for-38 passing for 305 yards and two touchdowns, picking on rookie corner Paulson Adebo again and again, with DJ Moore the primary beneficiary.

“I’ve always had a lot of confidence,” Darnold said. “That’s never going to change. Just finding completions and continuing to move the ball down the field, it’s a good feeling.”

Given the protection he lacked last week — even with as many as three starting linemen missing at times — Darnold moved the pocket, found open receivers, converted third downs and took at least some of the pressure of Christian McCaffrey in the first half, even if McCaffrey racked up 29 touches in the end as the offense stalled in the second half.

“I didn’t see him miss the same throws (as last week), a couple, two or three throws,” Panthers coach Matt Rhule said. “I thought he was really poised. Obviously, the one turnover can’t happen. It was kind of a jumbled look. Just get rid of the ball, continue to play. But I’m not asking him to be perfect for the whole season. I thought he made big throws on crucial throws, on third down.”

These are early returns from two home games against one bad team and one shorthanded team, so it’s important not to overreact. The Panthers will know far more about themselves and Darnold in two weeks, after a swing through Texas. There was always an element of uncertainty in the trade for Darnold, an inherent gamble on a player whose stock had bottomed out after three seasons of hijinks in New York, but it’s hard to imagine the first two games going much better than this.

That’s probably more true of the defense — the pass rush especially — but Darnold has so far delivered everything the Panthers needed from him. He’s been everything they wanted from him. And, perhaps, even more.

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