Panthers are giving Sam Darnold a chance to succeed, fair or not

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Alaina Getzenberg
·5 min read
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The Carolina Panthers and New York Jets gave the NFL world, or at least the media arm of it, something to talk about.

By trading quarterback Sam Darnold to Carolina for a sixth-round pick this year, and second- and fourth-round pick next year, the Jets officially moved on from the 23-year-old quarterback they drafted just three years prior.

Naturally, a plethora of questions and opinions followed the move. Was Darnold given a fair chance in New York? Enough protection? Weapons to throw to? Is it appropriate to blame the poor stats on him or direct the responsibility elsewhere?

What about Panthers quarterback Teddy Bridgewater? Did he get enough of an audition without running back Christian McCaffrey and behind an inconsistent offensive line? Darnold will likely get opportunities in Charlotte that Bridgewater did not.

“I don’t necessarily believe in fair and unfair in professional sports,” Panthers coach Matt Rhule said Monday. “It is what it is. Things happen as they happen.”

He then said that everyone will have to see how the team’s quarterback situation plays out over the next couple of weeks and that both are “good quarterbacks.” But his comment stands out for multiple reasons, in part because he acknowledged something that often isn’t said out loud.

In the NFL, teams are doing what the front office and coaching staff believe they need to in order to win. There’s a reason why Rhule made the comment he did. Fairness isn’t a typical part of the equation. If it works out that no team emerges as a trade candidate for Bridgewater, and he ends up still on the roster, then that will be the situation.

There are various aspects of what has transpired over the last several months for Bridgewater that are not necessarily “fair.”

Which brings us to Darnold, who is five years younger than Bridgewater with less of an injury history and a cheaper contract. He will be given opportunities that a veteran will not. Darnold was brought to the Panthers because the team believes that with his age, something Rhule pointed to multiple times Monday, adding him for a two-year trial period was a risk worth taking.

“I think when you see his arm talent ... I don’t think there’s a game that you watch where he doesn’t make a play that makes you say, ‘there it is,’ ” Rhule said. “He can fit the ball into tight windows, can create with his feet, he moves around a ton. He creates plays with his legs, extends plays with his legs. You can just kind of see and feel his grittiness, his toughness. I think his arm talent, his movement are a great fit for the players that we have here that he’ll be playing with.”

Darnold is walking into a situation that will be built for him to succeed. An experienced quarterback coach in Sean Ryan, a more experienced offensive coordinator Joe Brady and what should be an improved offense from a year ago. Rhule discussed the importance of building around the quarterback and how important this year’s draft is. The plan is to give him plenty of support.

In contrast, Darnold was asked Monday if he was given a fair shot in New York. He did not directly answer the question, but earlier had referenced the obvious clarity he found in the Panthers’ vision.

“Just in terms of walking around the building, you can tell. I mean, the agenda is set. It’s all about ball here. There are different sayings and different things that Coach Rhule and everyone in the organization wants to think about,” Darnold said. “Whether they’re sayings or different things just around the building that remind everyone kind of what the agenda is. I think that’s a really good sign of an organization that is on the same page.”

Despite Darnold’s stats over three years in New York that don’t jump off the page, he is being given a great opportunity. Rhule said he doesn’t view things that happen in other systems as “fast and hard truths” regarding a player.

Quarterbacks selected in the first round of the draft are given second chances more often than players selected late. Is that fair? Maybe. Maybe not.

“When I heard the news that (the Jets) wanted to trade me, it was tough. Anytime you’re not wanted somewhere that’s always a tough pill to swallow. But then it was the opposite feeling. You go from being unwanted and then all of a sudden, the people in Carolina wanted me and obviously traded for me,” Darnold said. “... I was just so excited for a fresh start and a new opportunity. It was bittersweet.”

After waiting months to learn his fate, Darnold now has his next steps set. There’s a chance Bridgewater remains on the team for competition and mentorship. The Panthers could draft a quarterback in the NFL draft this month. The team could move on from Darnold in two years or less if he doesn’t play up to a certain level.

Fair or not.

“I don’t know that I could say exactly where we are yet,” Rhule said when asked about Darnold as a starter. “I think that’ll all play out, but we obviously do feel really good about Sam and what he has the potential to do.”

Other Panthers notes:

The team has not officially picked up Darnold’s fifth-year option, per Rhule. That is expected to just be a matter of time. The Panthers will then pay the quarterback about $18.9 million in 2022.

McCaffrey missed 13 games in 2020 due to various injuries, but Rhule said he doesn’t have any reason at the moment to doubt that he will be healthy for various offseason programs. He has limited information due to it being the NFL dead period, where communication between coaching staffs and players is limited.

Rhule praised salary cap manager Samir Suleiman for his work getting this year’s cap in shape with the leftover dead cap money from previous seasons, while signing a number of free agents.

“I think Samir did a great job. There’s a lot of players that we think have good years left and that’s why we did multiple-year deals,” Rhule said. “But at the same time, a lot of this was about maximizing the limited cap space we had to be able to get a bunch of guys in.”