Is Sam Darnold's 2021 Luster Wearing Off?

Photo: Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

Has the luster worn off Sam Darnold? It sure seems like it.

For a few weeks there, it sure looked like the Carolina Panthers had “fixed” Sam Darnold after his time with the New York Jets. Carolina started the season 3-0 and their quarterback looked to be having a career renaissance after leaving the team that drafted him third overall in 2018. In his first three games, Darnold averaged 296 yards per game with a completion rate of 68% and a 3-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Even after his worst game—and first loss—with the Panthers that included two more touchdowns and two more picks, his first few performances were good enough for a passer rating of 95.4 and football analysts to declare the ghosts from his Jets days exorcised.

Not so fast.

In Sunday’s matchup with the Philadelphia Eagles, Darnold looked more like his Jets self than ever, one-upping his poor performance from the week before… literally. After his first two-interception game of the year last week, he threw three more against Philadelphia, bringing his season total to six despite throwing just one in his first three games. He finished the game with a final line of 21-of-37 (a 56.8% completion rate) for 177 yards, plus the one touchdown and those three picks. Not great.

Part of the blame for Darnold’s struggles against the Eagles belongs to the offensive line, which is clearly feeling the impact of the losses of tackle Cameron Erving and guard Pat Elflein after already being one of the NFL’s weaker fronts to begin with. The Carolina quarterback was scrambling often as the protection in front of him allowed eight pressures and three sacks on Sunday. As we know from his time with the Jets, Darnold does not perform well under duress, often making bad decisions and forcing poor throws when he faces pressure. That trend continued on Sunday.

It looked like the longer the game went on, the more uncomfortable Darnold looked in the pocket, holding onto the ball for too long on many of his pass attempts and forcing throws to his first read. His building discomfort in the pocket came to a head with his third interception, which sealed the Eagles’ victory. The offensive line didn’t allow pressure on that play—the throw was just plain bad.

He must have been seeing ghosts again because Robby Anderson had no chance on his comeback route with nothing but white jerseys around him. Yet on 1st-and-20, with the Panthers down by three on a crucial late fourth-quarter drive, Darnold tried to force it and was punished.

Part of the reason for that third interception very well could have been his missed connections with Anderson throughout the game. On more than one occasion, Darnold had the receiver open downfield and either didn’t see him or just straight up didn’t make a good enough throw. On that game-sealing pick, it looked like he was staring Anderson down from the moment he took the snap. All Eagles defender Steven Nelson had to do was read Darnold’s eyes to know where he was throwing before cutting in front of Anderson and grabbing the ball.

Another factor we may have to consider from Darnold’s poor starts the last two weeks is the absence of Christian McCaffrey. It’s no secret that the running back significantly changes the Panthers’ offense when he’s healthy. He’s an elite, game-changing player in both the run and pass game—both as a pass-catcher and blocker—and his absence from the backfield with a hamstring injury is a big blow to Carolina. But Darnold wasn’t asked to pass more often than usual over the last two weeks, so it’s not like the lack of a run game forced the Panthers into extra pass attempts and put more pressure on their quarterback. 

Was the lack of that extra pass protection a factor? Maybe. We’ll have to see how McCaffrey’s return—whenever that may be—affects Darnold’s future play. For right now, the state of Carolina’s offensive line and their quarterback’s inability to execute under pressure have combined to make Darnold look a lot like his past self, which is bad news for the Panthers.

Written By:

Jack McKessy

Staff Writer

Jack McKessy is a recent graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism who grew up in Washington, D.C. As a student, he covered Northwestern’s football, women’s soccer, women’s basketball, and baseball teams. Previously, he was in charge of social media and contributed to both written and multimedia content creation for La Vida Baseball in Chicago. He has also assisted in the production of promotional content for the Big Ten Network. Jack initially joined the TDN team as an intern during the 2020 season. Now, he writes columns—primarily analysis of the New York Giants—and helps run TDN's YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter accounts.