With trade talks stalled for Deshaun Watson, Panthers must steady Sam Darnold

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It’s time the Panthers fully commit to Sam Darnold for the remainder of the season and look internally to solve their offensive issues.

On Wednesday morning, The Observer confirmed reports that the Panthers had pulled themselves out of trade conversations with the Houston Texans involving embattled quarterback Deshaun Watson.

Talks between Carolina and Houston picked up again following the Panthers’ 25-3 loss to the New York Giants. Sam Darnold was pulled in the fourth quarter while Carolina trailed by 12. Coach Matt Rhule said he hoped backup quarterback P.J. Walker would provide a spark.

Optics aside, it makes sense why general manager Scott Fitterer revisited acquiring Watson despite his 22 ongoing civil lawsuits from women alleging that he exhibited inappropriate behavior with multiple massage therapists.

The Giants made Darnold look like he was a Jet again playing at MetLife Stadium. He looked uncomfortable all afternoon, completing 64% of his passes for 112 yards and a league-low 4.5 yards per attempt.

“When you go back and watch him throw a route against New Orleans and then you fast forward to Philly and this past game, I think his tempo is way faster and quicker,” Rhule said after practice on Wednesday. “I think Sam is a guy right now and these past few Sundays who is playing a little too quick.”

Rhule stressed that Darnold’s tempo and rhythm are off. Correcting that will take practice reps and attention to detail. Before practice, Panthers coaches had Darnold watch tape of his performances from earlier in the season. Against the Saints, he threw for 305 yards and two touchdowns.

Reminding Darnold of the quarterback he can be was a theme. It sounds like Rhule and Darnold both believe he can perform that way again.

Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold jogs off the field after warming up before the game against the Giants at MetLife Stadium on Sunday, October 24, 2021 in Rutherford, NJ.
Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold jogs off the field after warming up before the game against the Giants at MetLife Stadium on Sunday, October 24, 2021 in Rutherford, NJ.

“I have to do it in practice. That’s really where it starts,” Darnold said of slowing down his footwork. “Feeling my rhythm and being on time in practice and when I can get it right there then I know it will be right in the game.”

It’s important to keep football and roster-building separate when evaluating the Panthers’ desire for Watson. From a front-office perspective, landing one of the league’s premier young quarterbacks would fundamentally change the franchise. His legal issues aside, it’s obvious the GM who eventually lands Watson will be making a historic decision.

But bringing Watson, 26, to the Panthers doesn’t immediately make them a playoff team. Watson can only solve so many problems. Rhule and offensive coordinator Joe Brady must start coaching better for anyone to believe quarterback is Carolina’s most glaring issue.

The Panthers’ offense looks out of sorts. Darnold and his receivers are playing with poor timing since losing Christian McCaffrey in Week 3.

“(McCaffrey) is a big part of what we do here. He’s a great player but him being out (means) we have to adjust,” Darnold said. “Reads do not change just because (McCaffrey) is out of the ballgame.”

The Panthers’ star running back is eligible to return after Week 8 but it’s unclear if he’ll be ready. In his past 21 games, McCaffrey has only played four times. Prior to his spate of injuries, he played in 50 consecutive games.

Integrating McCaffrey into a functional offense should be Rhule and Brady’s top concern instead of hoping he can save it. Because they are stuck with Darnold, for now. It’s a reality they asked for after trading multiple picks for Darnold and picking up his fifth-year option last offseason.

The list of offensive issues is long. Carolina isn’t protecting its quarterback. The Panthers’ offensive line has a team pass-blocking grade of 50, according to Pro Football Focus. Only the Giants and Miami are worse. The Panthers also have a run-blocking grade under 60, nearly 10 points under the league average.

Without protection or a supportive running game, Darnold is in a similar situation as he was with the Jets. His playmakers aren’t coming through for him either. The Panthers have 15 drops on the season.

Combine all that and it explains why tackle Cam Erving spoke passionately about the offensive line’s play. He challenged his fellow linemen to step up and “get things done.”

If the offensive line does that and Darnold hones his fundamentals then things can improve on Sunday against an Atlanta Falcons defense that ranks 30th, according to Football Outsiders DVOA metric.

The NFL trade deadline passes on Nov. 2 at 4 p.m. The Panthers may speak to Houston again, but for now Rhule and his staff must work with the pieces they have. That means coaching Darnold and the offense better to ensure they execute.

“I’m focused on this week and beating Atlanta. I feel really good about Sam. Obviously, it wasn’t a good game this past game,” Rhule said. “When Sam or our team goes back and watches themselves versus the New Orleans Saints we see exactly what he is, was and can be.”

It’s OK for a coach to pull on past performances to motivate future outcomes. Those teachings must manifest for Darnold and the Panthers’ offense come Sunday.

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