What’s different with Sam Darnold? How Panthers QB is breaking free of Adam Gase shackles

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The sequel to “Escape from New York” stars Sam Darnold.

Small sample size considered, Darnold was significantly better in two games with the Panthers than he was in three years with the Jets. While Darnold increasingly looks like a usable NFL starter, he’s not necessarily foreign to those who have followed his career.

Still, Darnold appears to be improving his time with the Jets in the first two games of his Panthers career. Maybe it’s the low blood pressure in the building, which breaks Adam Gase’s chains, or the fact that he has, for the first time in his career, a pretty good team around him as the reason why it’s the case.

There is no one right answer. Really, it’s all of the above.

Darnold still has a long way to go to be a usable quarterback in the NFL, let alone the next “Ryan Tannehill.” But Darnold’s very first returns to re-energize his career are positive, and a domestic audience is poised to understand why on Thursday night.

MORE: Why Did The Jets Trade Sam Darnold?

A change of game

The first big noticeable difference with Darnold is the style of game he plays.

Entering Thursday night’s game against the Texans, Darnold attempted 33 short throws (0-9 yards), according to Pro Football Focus. Over a 17-game season, that could make 280 short-throw attempts (number of games and snaps should stay roughly the same), which would be 130 more than he attempted in 2020 ( 152).

Before you nickname him “Check Down Darnold,” consider this: Darnold’s 33 short-range attempts rank 11th in the league, behind Jared Goff, Derek Carr, Dak Prescott, Teddy Bridgewater, Zach Wilson and others.

The bright spot to take away if you’re a Panthers fan is Darnold’s insistence and persistence in taking what the defense gives him. It makes a marked difference from his Hero Ball tendencies which he exhibited with the Jets during his first three seasons in the NFL. There’s nothing wrong with letting your playmakers play games, after all.

… It also helps that he has an emergency relief valve at Christian McCaffrey’s, of course. McCaffrey was targeted six times in the Panthers’ Sunday win over the Saints, and McCaffrey’s passer rating when targeted in 2021 is 109.4. That number is the second-best in the NFL among running backs who were targeted at least 10 times in the first two weeks (behind D’Andre Swift). McCaffrey’s 15 total targets at the start are second in the NFL

A change of scenery

Supporting players are important in the NFL, especially for a young quarterback. Darnold hasn’t had exactly that for three years with the Jets, either on the field or in the coaching hall.

It starts with offense: Carolina offensive coordinator Joe Brady is billed as one of the league’s brightest offensive minds, and the 32-year-old has interviewed the Eagles, Texans and Chargers for their head coaching positions during the last offseason. As those vacancies were filled, Brady having the opportunity to try to rebuild Darnold will be a Gold Star on his CV and catapult him to the top of the training contenders next season.

Brady’s coaching – and the program – certainly helped Darnold, too.

“It’s just progression football,” Darnold recently told SI’s Albert Breer of the Carolina offense. “It’s about being in the right game, if we’re not in the right game, we’ve got some alerts for some coverage. It’s good football. To be able to get into the right game, though. [Brady] call a game and I feel like it’s not a good game or this is the look we didn’t want for this game so I can check it out and get into a good game.

“So that’s kind of what I really like about this attack is that you kind of have options to be able to change things on the line of scrimmage.”

It also helps that other than McCaffrey, Darnold is surrounded by a very, very good group of receivers. DJ Moore has just finished back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, Darnold has known wide-out Robby Anderson since his days with the Jets and Terrace Marshall, drafted in 2021, is promising as a fifth round.

Getting away from the Jets helped – who knew?

A change of age?

Above all, Darnold is in his fourth year as an NFL starting quarterback. Good or bad, experience counts in the NFL.

As mentioned, Darnold’s propensity to take what defense gives him early on will only help him and the Panthers move forward. With a seemingly renewed emphasis on toning down improvisation outside the pocket and playing within structure, Darnold’s mistakes of years past weren’t so noticeable in early matches.

He always tends to return the ball with a few head shots:

Needless to say, comparisons between Darnold and becoming the “Next Ryan Tannehill” – guys who become something after Adam Gase – are still a bit early, but things are moving forward for now.

Carolina – and Darnold – are better off keeping it that way for the rest of the season.


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