NFL News & Analysis

Monson: Why it is still too soon to anoint QB Sam Darnold as the Carolina Panthers' savior

Houston, Texas, USA; Carolina Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold (14) runs with the ball during the first quarter against the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Sam Darnold now has two 300-yard passing games in just three outings as the starting quarterback for the Carolina Panthers. He had none last season for the New York Jets.

The former No. 3 overall pick has now racked up 888 passing yards across three games and has looked like a different player since Carolina traded for him — and picked up his fifth-year option — this offseason. But how much of this reclamation project is for real, and how much is an illusion?

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The most obvious point to start with is the opposition he has faced so far.

When dealing with the first few weeks of any NFL season, the level of competition has a huge bearing on what we think we know about various players, teams and units. For example, the Las Vegas Raiders‘ pass rush has looked every bit like the best in the NFL, but we haven’t yet seen them face an offensive line that wasn’t beset by crippling problems. Unfortunately, we won’t get to see that this week, either, and it could be until Week 7 that the Raiders actually face an offensive line that would present a fair litmus test for their quality.

Through three weeks, the Panthers have faced two teams many expected to be among the worst in the league. The Jets and Texans each started their rookie quarterback, and the Saints team they beat 27-6 in Week 2 is still transitioning away from 15 years of Drew Brees and were missing eight assistant coaches at game time.

Sam Darnold: PFF grade and rank among QBs with 60 or more dropbacks
Season Dropbacks PFF Grade PFF Grade Rank
2021 122 81.2 7th of 26
2020 449 58.4 40th of 48
2019 521 63.6 34th of 52
2018 478 64.7 29th of 50

Darnold's Thursday Night Football bout with Houston couldn’t have provided a more obvious indicator of the effect the opposition can have on an offense’s production. Every time the Texans lined up in Cover 2, it was like sending the Panthers an engraved invitation to a first down over the middle of the field. Against that coverage shell, Carolina completed 11-of-12 attempts for 115 yards, even though the defense managed to move Darnold off his spot on five of those plays. When Houston ran man coverage — 47% of their coverage snaps — they just lost out to superior athletes at receiver.

It was too easy.

That context isn’t to dismiss what Darnold and the Panthers have done, but to ignore it entirely is just willfully pulling the wool over your own eyes.

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The next piece of context we need is the quality of the Panthers' scheme, which, under offensive coordinator Joe Brady, has been doing impressive things in the NFL regardless of the quarterback.

Last season, Teddy Bridgewater enjoyed arguably his worst season as a starter. His overall PFF grade of 66.0 was the lowest of his career, and he threw 11 interceptions to just 15 touchdown passes in a season of record-setting offensive production across the board.

It was bad enough that the team immediately cut bait on a contract that could have seen him act as a bridge quarterback for multiple seasons and instead zero in on Darnold.

But, despite the obvious disappointment of his play, Bridgewater still averaged 7.6 yards per attempt, the same as Tom Brady. The offense was producing despite the quarterback, and that’s without Christian McCaffrey for most of the season.

Darnold is enjoying much of the same boost as Bridgewater, but he's reacting better to it. He is averaging 8.3 yards per attempt through three games, and his PFF grade has jumped, as well — which means he isn’t just enjoying the statistical boost from schemed throws but is also doing his part to maximize the impact of those plays. Darnold now sports an 81.2 overall PFF grade after having never topped 65.0 over a season with the Jets.

His accuracy is up, and he is making more big plays and fewer critical mistakes compared to any season in New York. But he is also playing the game on easy mode because of Brady and the defenses he has faced. Since Brady arrived, the Panthers have ranked in the top 12 in the percentage of pass attempts to open receivers despite not having elite quarterback play under center.

The Jets rank 30th.

These easier throws are having an obvious effect on Darnold’s accuracy — not just in terms of completion rate or even adjusted completion rate, but in terms of actual ball-location accuracy.

Season Perfect location Accurate Catchable Inaccurate Uncatchable Inaccurate
2021 25% 66.7% 15.6% 17.7%
2020 12.90% 53.7% 23.6% 22.7%

He's improved his numbers in every facet of ball-location data that PFF measures, from “perfect” to simply catchable to completely uncatchable and inaccurate.

It was entirely plausible heading into this season that Darnold’s performance would remain where it has always been, but he would see a statistical boost to his numbers by playing within a superior scheme and throwing to better receivers. We have seen this before when Nick Foles or Mitchell Trubisky, for example, improved their box score numbers but didn't see corresponding leaps in PFF grade. They were being made to look better without actually performing better. But that isn’t what’s happening with Darnold.

The environment is helping, but it’s enabling him to play materially better football as well.

Questions still linger, though. What kind of ceiling does this give a player whose future is still up in the air? And can Darnold sustain this play against better opposition? For now, the Panthers are being vindicated in their decision to acquire a player who was consigned to the scrap heap by the New York Jets this offseason. The decision arguably looks even better when considering the struggles of the rookie quarterbacks so far this season.

The Panthers took a lot of criticism for their pursuit of Darnold, not least from yours truly, but they are the ones laughing through three games.

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