Sam Darnold struggled in 2020. Here’s why this year with the Panthers should be different

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When the New York Jets drafted Sam Darnold No. 3 overall in the 2018 NFL draft, they saw a quarterback with “high ceiling,” and one who could perhaps solve their long-lasting quarterback woes.

He was considered by many draft experts to be the safest quarterback in the draft over Baker Mayfield and Josh Rosen, despite being turnover prone at Southern California.

But Darnold never quite found that success in New York. In 38 starts, he had a 13-25 record, threw 45 touchdowns, but also 38 interceptions.

The 2020 season was Darnold’s worst statistically, and is a big reason why he’s no longer with the Jets. In 12 starts, Darnold threw nine touchdowns, 11 interceptions, completed less than 60% of his passes, and had a 72.7 passer rating.

The Jets finished 2-14, which earned them the No. 2 pick in the 2021 draft. They traded Darnold to the Panthers and took BYU’s Zach Wilson second overall.

The Panthers’ move to trade for Darnold, given his lack of success in New York, raised questions.

Why not draft a quarterback?

But the Panthers feel that Darnold, only 23, has a lot of potential, and perhaps just hasn’t found the right system. And the potential reward outweighed the risk.

“You’re getting a veteran. A guy that just so happens to be young and that was extremely enticing to us,” Panthers offensive coordinator Joe Brady said Wednesday.

So that brings us back to why he struggled? The Observer reviewed film on three New York Jets games.

One of the biggest takeaways was that the Jets were a bad team in 2020. The Jets averaged 105.3 yards rushing per game, which was 23rd out of 32 NFL teams in rushing yards. By comparison, the Panthers were 21st out of 32 NFL teams.

The Jets’ also had the 29th-worst offensive line in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus. They allowed pressure in 2.5 seconds or less on 28% of their dropbacks. And that showed on film. Darnold was often seen trying to throw on the run.

But he also missed throws that he should have made.

Oftentimes when the pocket collapsed around Darnold, his feet would move quickly and he would rush a throw, or throw off-balance, or throw off his back foot. His mechanics were off. Those passes led to inaccurate throws and incomplete passes.

“I think the biggest thing for Sam is just to get really comfortable with the way that we move in the pocket,” Panthers coach Matt Rhule said during the first week of OTA’s. “He comes from a different system where they were kind of static.

“We’re more of a move-up-in-the-pocket, slide-up-in-the-pocket, throw-on-rhythm type of a team. We really don’t want him holding the ball and letting it rip. We want him to play in progression, play in timing. That’s new to him.”

Bad mechanics

The Jets ranked at the bottom of the NFL in yards per game in 2020. They couldn’t run or pass. It’s important to note that Le’Veon Bell missed three of the Jets’ first five games before he was traded to Kansas City. And Jamison Crowder, also one of their top weapons, missed four games because of an injury.

But the Jets struggles were evident as early as Week 1 against the Buffalo Bills. Darnold was constantly on the run, and there were times when his receivers didn’t get much separation from their defenders.

He also missed some throws that should have been completed. According to Pro Football Reference, of his 35 throwing attempts, seven were considered “poor throws.” That’s 21.2 percent.

In the second quarter, the Jets were facing third-and-6, from their own 26-yard line. Darnold dropped back was pressured up the middle, so he ran left and kept his eyes up field.

Sam Darnold escapes pocket in a game against Bills in Week 1 of 2020 season.
Sam Darnold escapes pocket in a game against Bills in Week 1 of 2020 season.

Crowder briefly flashed open in the middle of the field. So Darnold tried to throw it across his body, a faux pas in football. The pass didn’t have much on it, and it was intercepted by Bills linebacker Matt Millano.

The Bills got out to an early 21-3 lead and never looked back. The Jets were playing catch-up for the rest of the game.

When Darnold throws interceptions, it often happens when he is under pressure and his feet are not set, or when he stares down a receiver.

In Week 3, Darnold threw three interceptions in an embarrassing 36-7 loss to the Colts. His first two picks — both intercepted by Colts cornerback Xavier Rhodes — were a result of Darnold staring down his receivers too long and trying to fit it into a small window.

Both times Rhodes made impressive plays by stepping in front of the receivers. The second interception happened in the end zone when the Jets were trailing 17-7 in the second quarter with an opportunity to cut it to one possession from the Colts seven-yard-line. Rhodes read the play well.

Sam Darnold throws his second interception in a Week 3 game against the Colts in 2020.
Sam Darnold throws his second interception in a Week 3 game against the Colts in 2020.

On his third interception, Darnold’s receiver was also not looking, and the ball was nowhere near him, indicating that perhaps there was a miscommunication between the two. The Colts sent five, which caused Darnold to throw it earlier than he was hoping. He both stared down his defender and threw off his back foot, leading to the errant throw.

Sam Darnold throws his third interception of the day in a Week 3 game against the Colts in 2020.
Sam Darnold throws his third interception of the day in a Week 3 game against the Colts in 2020.

Improvisation

Darnold seemed to settle down in the second half of the season. He was 2-2 in December games and threw five touchdowns and only one interception.

But in the 12 games Darnold started in 2020, only three times was his passer rating above 90.

One of those games came in a 31-28 Week 13 loss to the Raiders. For the most part, Darnold played well by keeping it simple. He made short throws and let his receivers make plays.

It resulted in two touchdown passes, including a six-yard pass that he fit in a small window to Crowder in the second quarter. Keeping it simple was when Darnold was at his best. The one mistake he made was an interception in the second quarter, when he again, stared down his receiver.

Darnold also showed an impressive ability to improvise when under duress. In the Week 3 loss to the Colts, the Jets had second-and-8 at the Colts’ 16-yard line.

The Colts only rushed four, but got pressure up the middle.

Sam Darnold escapes pressure from the Colts in a Week 3 game.
Sam Darnold escapes pressure from the Colts in a Week 3 game.

Darnold extended the play, escaping two Colts defenders, rolled out right and found Braxton Berrios for a 16-yard touchdown.

Sam Darnold throws a touchdown pass to Braxton Berrios in a Week 3 game against the Colts in 2020.
Sam Darnold throws a touchdown pass to Braxton Berrios in a Week 3 game against the Colts in 2020.

What we learned

Panthers’ offensive coordinator Joe Brady didn’t elaborate much on Darnold’s past struggles or what he wanted him to work on this offseason. He said they are starting clean.

“What I’ve loved about Sam is that he’s been all about ball since he’s gotten here,” Brady said. “He doesn’t just want to please, he wants to have success and that’s something I love.”

Darnold is still a work in progress. He has issues with his footwork. He has a tendency to stare down his receivers, and he showed poor mechanics in 2020.

But he also didn’t have much help. His best players were often injured, he lacked an offensive line and a running game. And the defense couldn’t stop opposing offenses. The mistakes tended to happen when the Jets were trailing. And the Jets trailed often in 2020.

The good news for Darnold is the Panthers were better than the Jets last season. They have more weapons in DJ Moore, Robby Anderson and former MVP candidate Christian McCaffrey.

The offensive line has some questions for sure, but the Panthers have the pieces for Darnold to have better success. New Panthers quarterbacks coach Sean Ryan said they are working with Darnold and the other quarterbacks on making sure their footwork is right.

“You start always from the feet up,” Ryan said. “When your feet are right, and the lower half is correct, there’s a good chance that the ball is going to be thrown in the right spot.”

And that’s the biggest thing for Darnold. Making sure he’s connecting with his receivers, and not defenders.

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