Wednesday, October 27

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

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

Considering the small sample size, Darnold has looked noticeably better in two games with the Panthers than in three years with the Jets. While Darnold has increasingly resembled a useful NFL starter, that’s not necessarily alien to those who have followed his career.

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

There is no one correct answer. Actually, it is all of the above.

Darnold still has a long way to go to be a useful quarterback in the NFL, let alone the next “Ryan Tannehill.” But Darnold’s early results in revitalizing his career are positive, and a national audience is about to see why on Thursday night.

MORE: Why did the Jets trade Sam Darnold?

A game changer

The first big noticeable difference in Darnold is the style of play he’s playing.

Entering Thursday night’s matchup against the Texans, Darnold has attempted 33 short shots (0-9 yards), according to Pro Football Focus. Over a 17-game season, that could be 280 short-yard throwing attempts (if play counts and plays remain roughly the same), which would be 130 more than he attempted in 2020 (152).

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

The upside to this if you’re a Panthers fan is Darnold’s insistence and persistence in taking what the defense gives him. That makes a marked difference from his Hero Ball tendencies that he displayed while with the Jets during his first three NFL seasons. After all, there is nothing wrong with letting your playmakers make plays.

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

A change of scenery

Supporting the cast is important in the NFL, especially for a young quarterback. Darnold didn’t have exactly that for three years with the Jets, either on the field or in the coach’s room.

It starts with offense: Carolina offensive coordinator Joe Brady is considered one of the league’s brightest offensive minds, and the 32-year-old was interviewed with the Eagles, Texans and Chargers for his head coach positions at last offseason. As long as those vacancies were filled, Brady getting a chance to try and rebuild Darnold will be a gold star on his résumé and catapult him to the top of the coaching roster next season.

Brady’s training, and scheme, has certainly helped Darnold as well.

“It’s just progression football”, Darnold told SI’s Albert Breer recently about Carolina’s offense. “It’s getting into the right play, if we’re not on the right one, we have certain alerts for certain coverage. It’s good football. Being able to make the right play, yes. [Brady] call a play and I feel like it’s not a great play or it’s the look we didn’t want for that play, then I can look at it and start a good play.

“So that’s what I really like about this offense, is that you have options to be able to turn things around on the line of scrimmage.”

It also helps that, in addition to McCaffrey, Darnold is surrounded by a really good group of receivers. DJ Moore is coming off back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, Darnold is familiar with wide receiver Robby Anderson from his Jets days and Terrace Marshall, drafted in 2021, promises to be a fifth-round player.

Getting away from the Jets helped, who would have thought?

A change of… age?

Above all, Darnold is in his fourth year as the NFL’s starting quarterback. Good or bad, experience matters in the NFL.

As mentioned, Darnold’s propensity to take what the defense gives him early on will only help him and the Panthers move forward. With a seemingly renewed focus on toning down improv out of pocket and playing within structure, Darnold’s mistakes from years past have not been as apparent in early games.

He still has the tendency to flip the ball with some hard-headed plays:

Needless to say, the 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.

It’s better than Carolina, and Darnold, hope it stays that way for the rest of the season.

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