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Should Panthers Bench Sam Darnold?

  • The Draft Network
  • November 8, 2021
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For the last several weeks, we’ve been documenting (semi-regularly) Sam Darnold’s ongoing struggles in Carolina. Even when things were going well for Darnold and the Panthers at the start of the season, it was hard to completely buy into any hype considering the low level of talent he had succeeded against.

It’s now Week 9. The Panthers are 4-5 and have lost five of their last six after opening the season 3-0. After an(other) abysmal performance against Bill Belichick and his New England Patriots, Darnold simply cannot be the best answer Carolina has at quarterback.

In his first three games with his new team, Darnold was completing almost 70% of his passes and had more than 300 passing yards in two of them. He had thrown for three touchdowns to just one interception. The next week, he began a four-game interception streak. Entering this Sunday, he had officially thrown more interceptions than touchdowns on the year, with his touchdown-to-interception ratio standing at 7:8.

After some of his struggles began, I speculated that Darnold may be suffering from the absence of running back Christian McCaffrey in the backfield. McCaffrey is one of the NFL’s most dynamic players, a dangerous threat as both a runner and a pass-catcher who’s also a solid blocker in pass protection. He’s the type of player that can completely change the look of an offense. So when the Panthers began a four-game losing streak right after losing their lead back to a hamstring injury, it didn’t seem like a coincidence.

Carolina was entering their Week 9 matchup against the Patriots off a losing-streak-breaking divisional win over the Atlanta Falcons. What’s more, McCaffrey was finally designated to return to action after missing five games, so Darnold would finally have his most important offensive piece back.

He’d always struggled against the Patriots in his time with the Jets, but there were other factors coming into Sunday—the change in scenery, the recent victory to break a losing streak, the return of McCaffrey. Could this be the game he turned it around and looked like he had to begin the season?

No. No, it was not.

Instead, the former Jet went out and completed fewer than half of his 33 pass attempts. That’s just according to the stat sheet though, since he did manage to complete three additional passes… to Patriots defenders. Darnold finished Sunday afternoon 16-of-33 passing for 172 yards with no touchdowns, three interceptions, and a passer rating of 26.3. This seems like a good spot to remind you that a quarterback would have a 39.6 passer rating if they spiked the ball on every pass attempt. Like I said, abysmal.

It just looked like more of the same, bad version of Darnold. He continued to make the mistakes he has all year: throwing the ball up in the air like it’s a schoolyard game of 500, floating passes that leave his receivers vulnerable, and making horrible throwing decisions under pressure.

According to ESPN Stats & Info, Darnold’s throws outside the pocket were an unprecedented level of bad, as he became the first quarterback since 2009 to complete zero passes (0-6) and throw multiple interceptions (2 INT) outside the pocket.

Head coach Matt Rhule isn’t happy with Darnold, saying after the game, “I don’t want to lay it all on one guy, but we can’t keep throwing the ball up in the air.”

Wide receiver (and fellow former Jet) Robby Anderson isn’t happy with him either, caught on camera once again yelling at Darnold on the sideline.

The problem now: what does Carolina do? Darnold is undeniably a bad quarterback and he simply cannot remain the Panthers’ starter if they want to win games. But Carolina had to drop out of the race to trade for Deshaun Watson when the Texans quarterback didn’t waive his no-trade clause to be moved to Charlotte. They clearly don’t believe in backup P.J. Walker either, who still couldn’t earn the starter spot despite Darnold’s recent poor performances and missed practice reps with his concussion last week.

Whatever the case, the Darnold Era must end soon. The Panthers took a shot at him, trading three draft picks to New York to get who they thought could be their guy. They even doubled down on their commitment by picking up his fifth-year option, guaranteeing the former Jet almost $19 million in 2022. But Carolina can’t let the sunk cost prevent them from moving on; Darnold’s play has hurt the Panthers’ chances of winning several games. There just has to be a better option. Whether that’s developing Walker or trying out free agents is up to Carolina’s coaching staff and front office, but Darnold wasn’t, isn’t, and certainly won’t be the answer for the Panthers.

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