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Sam Darnold’s ‘style of ball’ may doom Carolina Panthers

Carolina Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold doesn't seem keen on changing his style of play. Read why that could spell disaster for the team and his NFL career.

Matt Fitzgerald

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The Carolina Panthers are banking on Sam Darnold to take them from a promising young team to a legitimate playoff contender in 2021, but the young quarterback’s approach to his new team is cause for concern.

Speaking about his second chance at NFL life after flaming out amid awful circumstances with the New York Jets, Darnold suggested he’ll maintain the traits that have gotten him to this point on the gridiron, per NFL.com’s Nick Shook:

“[I’ll] continue to play my game. When you get out on the field, you’ve got to have a flow. You can’t be thinking about doing something a different way. I’ve got to play my style of ball. That’s why they brought me here, play my style of ball and make plays the way I do.”

Carolina Panthers QB Sam Darnold

Darnold is an excellent athlete with above-average arm strength and a knack for making plays off-schedule. However, the 23-year-old couldn’t produce enough magic to overcome adversity with the Jets, and is entering an entirely new set of circumstances in Charlotte.

It’s not taking anything out of context to infer that, for better or worse, Darnold seems content to keep doing what he did in New York, counting on a far superior Panthers supporting cast to help him out.

Being that self-assured after a bad stint with Gang Green is an admirable trait that could help Darnold rebound. On the other hand, though, this approach may well doom Carolina’s 2021 season and the young QB’s career.

Sam Darnold’s typical style doesn’t translate to long-term success

  • Sam Darnold stats: 59.8% completion rate, 6.6 yards per attempt, 45 touchdowns, 39 interceptions, 78.6 passer rating, 20 fumbles, 98 sacks taken in 38 NFL starts

Because Darnold likes to bail from the pocket, make plays out of the structure of the offense and attempt throws that are a high degree of difficulty, his mechanics are inconsistent. Thus, he lacks consistency on touch passes, is scattershot with his accuracy and he puts the ball in harm’s way far too often.

The system that Panthers offensive coordinator Joe Brady runs is reliant on timing, scanning the field to make full-progression reads and maximizing the immense skill position talent Carolina has. This worked wonders when Brady was the passing game coordinator at LSU, ultimately elevating Joe Burrow to become the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2020.

Burrow is way more advanced at reading defenses, making pre-snap adjustments and is a far superior decision-maker than Darnold, even though he lags behind in NFL experience by multiple seasons.

There’s no question Darnold has a higher ceiling and the better ability to make big plays downfield than his Panthers predecessor, Teddy Bridgewater. Having said that, Bridgewater played smart enough to keep Carolina in almost every game last season, as eight of the team’s 11 losses were by one possession.

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Can Sam Darnold fix his flaws to shine in Carolina?

Can Sam Darnold fix his flaws to shine in Carolina?
Sep 13, 2020; Orchard Park, New York, USA; New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold (14) runs with the ball as Buffalo Bills defensive end Jerry Hughes (left) defends during the first quarter at Bills Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

That’s the multi-million dollar question, because the good plays Darnold does make do stand out. Alas, he makes too many boneheaded decisions. What’s more discouraging is that Darnold struggled with turnovers in college at USC, and hasn’t shown any signs that he’s going to stop giving the ball away since arriving in the NFL.

The best thing that Brady can do is create easy throws for Darnold, which should be quite easy. All-world tailback Christian McCaffrey, provided he stays healthy, can put up 100 receptions in a season, especially with a 17th game added to the schedule.

Combine McCaffrey’s unique receiving ability with the likes of DJ Moore, Robby Anderson and rookie Terrace Marshall Jr. at wide receiver, and the Panthers have a formidable set of weapons on paper.

Unfortunately, Carolina’s offensive line continues to be a huge question mark, which limits McCaffrey’s rushing upside and Darnold’s ability to be consistent. Bad pass protection derailed Darnold’s hopes of thriving with the Jets, and only exacerbated his unsavory habits to the point where he’d frequently bail even when the pocket was clean.

The Panthers may see their fair share of shootouts, too, because of their youth on defense. That only puts more pressure on Darnold and decreases his margin for error when his innate style is to press. His temptation to make the big play will linger.

Darnold has a golden opportunity to reinvent himself, build on his strengths and address his weaknesses in a much more conducive environment to improve than he had in New York.

It’s just unclear whether he’ll be able to get out of his own way in the end, and prove enough in one season for Carolina to stick with him. Chances are, if old habits die hard with Darnold, he may not get another shot as a starter beyond 2021.