Sam Darnold Is Getting Everything He Never Received in New York

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistMay 5, 2021

New York Jets head coach Adam Gase shakes hands with quarterback Sam Darnold (14) after the Jets scored a touchdown during the second half of an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Rams Sunday, Dec. 20, 2020, in Inglewood, Calif. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)
Ashley Landis/Associated Press

When the New York Jets traded Sam Darnold to the Carolina Panthers earlier this offseason, it was easy to hand the former USC standout the "bust" label. New York drafted Darnold third overall in 2018 to be the franchise's savior.

A savior, Darnold was not. Less than three years after he was drafted, Darnold is starting over, while the Jets have tapped Zach Wilson as the new chosen one.

Some of the blame does rest on Darnold's shoulders. Poor decision-making and a lack of pocket presence have haunted him like ghosts throughout his three pro campaigns. Darnold has also struggled to stay healthy, missing 10 of a possible 48 games.

However, it's premature to call Darnold a bust after only three seasons. It's more accurate to say that the Jets failed Darnold rather than things being the other way around.

Like Baker Mayfield of the Cleveland Browns, Darnold has dealt with multiple head coaches—Todd Bowles and Adam Gase, in Darnold's case—meaning he has had to learn multiple offenses. Unlike Mayfield, Darnold never enjoyed the benefit of an improved roster.

New York did not set up Darnold for success. He'll be starting over again with the Panthers, but entering 2021, Darnold should feel a newfound level of confidence.


Why Darnold Didn't Work Out in New York

Charles Krupa/Associated Press

If you haven't followed Darnold's story or the Jets over the past three years, the problems began before the 2018 NFL draft. Just as the San Francisco 49ers did this year, the Jets traded up to the No. 3 slot in Round 1 without knowing which quarterback they were going to take.

The difference is that San Francisco had a good idea that Wilson and Trevor Lawrence would be off the board by No. 3. Kyle Shanahan and Co. had to decide between the remaining three of the top five quarterback prospects—Mac Jones, Justin Fields and Trey Lance, who the 49ers selected.

The Jets, however, had no clue who the Browns were going to take at No. 1 or if the New York Giants might trade down or take a quarterback at No. 2. This means that the Jets had to be comfortable with at least three of the top five quarterback prospects before trading up.

Cleveland took Mayfield, the Giants grabbed running back Saquon Barkley, and the Jets got Darnold.

While Darnold may or may not have been the top quarterback on New York's draft board, this was still an example of poor strategizing. The Jets had no idea which quarterback they would wind up with, meaning they couldn't possibly seek out supporting talent in free agency with a particular skill set in mind.

Darnold, Mayfield, Josh Allen and Josh Rosen were all very different quarterback prospects.

With a subpar supporting cast, Darnold was always going to struggle as a rookie, and initially, the Jets insisted that they wouldn't throw the former Trojan to the proverbial wolves.

"We're not going to throw him out there, but at the same time, we're not going to hold him back, either," then-head coach Todd Bowles said, per ESPN's Rich Cimini.

Darnold, though, started in Week 1 of his rookie season. He started 13 games that year, struggled to produce more than glimpses of promise—he finished with a passer rating of 77.6—and led New York to a four-win campaign.

Adam Gase replaced Bowles the following offseason.

Starting Darnold as a rookie was a mistake the Jets shouldn't have made, though to be fair, many in the national media believed that he would be an instant star.

Matt Miller @nfldraftscout

Hot Take: Sam Darnold is going to be good.

Geoff Schwartz @geoffschwartz

Sam Darnold...😍 ... Congrats Jets on your franchise QB

Hiring supposed quarterback guru Gase was New York's next big misstep. Gase picked up a reputation as a bright offensive mind while working with Peyton Manning with the Denver Broncos. However, he proved nothing during his stint as the Miami Dolphins head coach.

In three seasons, Gase's Dolphins went 23-25. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill, meanwhile, failed to develop into a top-tier passer under Gase.

In New York, Gase again failed to develop his quarterback or to provide any semblance of leadership. According to Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News, Gase had lost the locker room before his second season had even begun:

"Too many people on 1 Jets Drive—including players, coaches and front office members—don’t trust or believe in Gase, whose disingenuous bent hasn't been lost on people in the organization. They painted a picture of an insecure figure always willing to point the finger at others for the team's failings last season. No player, or person, was immune."

So while Darnold had the benefit of the same offensive system in back-to-back years last season, he was also playing with a team that didn't believe it could win.

It didn't help that Darnold's supporting cast was never substantially better than it was his rookie season. The Jets brought in Le'Veon Bell in 2019, and general manager Joe Douglas drafted a potential franchise left tackle in Mekhi Becton last year. However, Darnold was never given a No. 1 receiver, a quality pass-catching tight end or a rushing attack that ranked higher than 23rd in yardage.

The result is that Darnold never really became a better quarterback. His career passer rating of 78.6 is exactly one point higher than his rating as a rookie.

With Gase gone, Darnold failing to develop and the Jets sensing the opportunity for a fresh start, the team placed Darnold on the trading block. Carolina, seeking an upgrade over Teddy Bridgewater, pounced on a quarterback with rare physical traits and untapped potential.

Darnold will now have the opportunity to prove that he isn't a bust and enters a situation better than any he had in the Big Apple.


Why Darnold's Tenure in Carolina Will be Different

Brian Blanco/Associated Press

The Panthers only won five games in 2020, but they have a roster more talented than any Darnold saw in New York.

Carolina has a defense that ranked 18th in both yards and points allowed last season. It has an elite running back in Christian McCaffrey, a No. 1 receiver in D.J. Moore, a franchise tag-worthy right tackle in Taylor Moton and a former Pro Bowl tight end in Tyler Eifert.

The Panthers also took significant steps to improve in free agency, adding pass-rusher Haason Reddick, guards Pat Elfein and John Miller, cornerback A.J. Bouye, linebacker Denzel Perryman and offensive tackle Cam Erving.

The Panthers also entered the draft committed to Darnold as their starting quarterback.

"We brought Sam here because we believe that he can win for us," Panthers coach Matt Rhule said on draft weekend, per AP sportswriter Steve Reed. "When we look at him over his last three years we see a guy with tons of potential. We see a guy that in our offense is going to do really good things."

Carolina kicked off its draft by grabbing an elite cornerback prospect in Jaycee Horn. Its next four selections—wideout Terrace Marshall Jr., offensive tackle Brady Christensen, tight end Tommy Tremble and running back Chuba Hubbard—are all players who can directly aid Darnold offensively.

Darnold should be surrounded by a strong offense and a defense that is average at worst. 2019 was the only season in which Darnold didn't play with a bottom-10 scoring defense in New York.

The Panthers have already put a solid team around Darnold, something New York failed to do over the past three years.

Then, there's the coaching staff. While head coach Rhule is still largely unproven, he and offensive coordinator Joe Brady gave plenty of reasons for hope last season. They coaxed an 18th-ranked passing attack out of Bridgewater and helped maintain a functional rushing attack with McCaffrey sidelined for 13 games.

The presence of Brady should be particularly beneficial for Darnold. As LSU's passing-game coordinator in 2019, he helped Joe Burrow produce arguably the greatest college quarterbacking season in history. Burrow, it's worth noting, was decidedly average the year before Brady arrived.

In 2018, Burrow passed for 2,894 yards with 16 touchdowns and five interceptions. In 2019, he passed for 5,671 yards, 60 touchdowns and six interceptions. He also won the Heisman Trophy and became the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft.

In Brady, Darnold has something he didn't have in Gase—an offensive mind who has actually proved that he can develop a quarterback into something better.

Rhule is a coach with the leadership skills that Gase lacked. He helped lead Temple to an ACC Championship in 2016 and was Big 12 Coach of the Year in 2019.

In Carolina, Darnold will also escape the pressure of having to be the savior of a big-market franchise. He's out from under the shadow of Joe Namath and didn't cost the Panthers multiple high draft picks to acquire. He can grow and develop without having to be great right away. Carolina recently picked up Darnold's fifth-year option, meaning he can take incremental steps over the next two seasons.

Sure, the next two seasons may show that Darnold is indeed a bust. However, they could also show that the Jets were right to take Darnold at No. 3 and only wrong in the handling of his development. Much of it will be up to Darnold, but he finally appears to have the teammates, coaching staff and situation needed to succeed—all things that New York never gave him.