“Film Room” is a bi-weekly column by Aidan Berg that highlights player performances by breaking down basketball and football tape.
Sam Darnold is finally free of the hell that is the New York Jets. They’re Zach Wilson’s problem now.
That is not to say that the USC alum is blameless in his struggles. After making some promising strides in 2019, Darnold ranked among the worst quarterbacks in the league in most passing categories in 2020, posting an ugly 9-to-11 touchdown-to-interception ratio and averaging just 184 yards per game.
But that dip also came during a time when New York a) let Darnold’s best receiver Robby Anderson (more on him later) walk in free agency and failed to adequately replace him and b) doubled down on nearly every negative from its first year under Adam Gase. Darnold was stuck throwing solely short passes to a crappy set of receivers behind an offensive line with more turnstiles than Universal Studios.
Now Darnold is moving on to Carolina as the presumptive starter and replacement for Teddy Bridgewater, who appears on his way out of town just one year after signing a three-year, $63 million contract. But why did the Panthers tab Darnold as the guy given his struggles in 2020?
It’s a fair question to ask honestly. Looking at the stats, there’s not a single thing Darnold did better than Bridgewater in 2020.
However, I don’t believe this is a bet on the Darnold we saw in 2020, but on the Darnold we saw in 2019. Here are Darnold’s numbers from that season:
<iframe src=“https://www.pro-football-reference.com/play-index/share.fcgi?id=S2jis&output=iframe” width=1277 height=65 scrolling=auto>
Report Created on <a href=“https://www.pro-football-reference.com/”>Pro-Football-Reference.com</a>
So still not great, but not the absolute worst given his supporting cast, and it starts to give an understanding of what the Panthers are looking for here. Bridgewater is a safe but limited option; since 2018, when Pro Football Reference started tracking air yards, Bridgewater’s highest intended air yards per pass attempt was 7.1 this past season. That lines up with the eye test that indicates Bridgewater rarely throws the ball downfield no matter what system he plays in.
Darnold, meanwhile, has never dipped below 7.7 IAY/PA despite playing in Gase’s checkdown-heavy offense. You have to remember that second-year offensive coordinator Joe Brady came to the Panthers after one season calling plays for LSU, a season in which Joe Burrow made an absolute killing throwing the ball downfield. The only way that replacing Bridgewater with Darnold makes any sense is if Brady wants to push the ball further through the air, and although Darnold has never been consistent in any area of the game, he has shown flashes of being able to create some incredible big plays.
Those back-to-back Fran Tarkenton-esque escapes into off-platform throws are exactly what the NFL is looking for nowadays, no? Clearly Darnold has all the physical capability in the world, so Brady and head coach Matt Rhule must think they can make the processing side easier with their spread concepts that take advantage of the middle of the field. Bridgewater can do that, but he’s never shown he can make the kinds of plays you see above.
Remember what I said about coming back to Robby Anderson? I wonder if the Carolina wideout had any of these plays in mind when management asked him about playing with Darnold.
Darnold and Anderson displayed good chemistry as a deep ball combination, connecting for 102 catches for 1,531 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2017 and 2018. But Anderson became a true volume threat in his first year in black and blue, catching 95 passes for 1,096 yards and three scores. If he and Darnold looked good under Gase, imagine what they can do as better versions of themselves in Brady’s attack.
Part of being able to attack downfield is buying yourself enough time for routes to develop. We already saw Darnold’s capability here in the previous section, but here are more examples of him setting up throws by using his legs.
No, Darnold isn’t as accurate or safe with the ball as you want him to be and these are just his best plays, but look at some of those throws. He made lemonade out of lemons plenty of times with that New York offensive line and receiving corps, so I imagine a step up even to Carolina will feel like a world of difference. Again, this is the Darnold Carolina traded for, and it’s betting it can improve his processing and ball security enough to profit from the added big plays and escaped sacks.
When Brady was at LSU, he saw Burrow take advantage of unaware defenses to scramble for big yards, picking his spots carefully because of his fine-but-not-great athleticism. Brady even threw him a bone every once in a while by letting him keep on goal line options. Below, Darnold does both.
Darnold runs with more speed and power than Burrow ever has or ever will. He’s also more dynamic on the ground than Bridgewater; Darnold has averaged around eight yards per scramble each year of his career while 2020 was the only season of the last three in which Bridgewater topped 3.7 yds/scrm. This is Brady’s best opportunity yet to get his quarterback involved in the run game. It might not be the best idea given Darnold’s injury history, but the option is there.
So we’ve established Darnold has a more dynamic skill set than Bridgewater, but the NFL is a league oriented around results, not how cool you look throwing the ball. Let’s look at Bridgewater and Darnold’s passer rating grids from 2020.
Doesn’t really make much sense to go for the second guy, huh? As I said earlier, I believe the Panthers are viewing this more for who Darnold was in 2019. What does that map say?
The key here is in the intermediate areas (a.k.a between 10 and 20 yards), where 2019 Darnold outperforms Bridgewater in all three sections. Those intermediate throws were one of his strongest areas coming out of USC, and I think 2020 was simply a one-year anomaly. He’s shown he can operate in that in-between zone from sideline to sideline, displaying great zip and nice instances of ball placement.
I can see Darnold combining his 2019 intermediate success with his 2020 downfield improvement in Carolina, and if he does so he will be a much more effective player.
Unless Carolina’s offensive line completely falls apart, I don’t see any scenario where Darnold doesn’t improve with his new team. Whether it will be enough to justify him as a starter and quarterback of the future is the real question. No one really knows how good he is because of his situation.
Here’s what we do know: He’s still super young at 23 years old (he’s about six months younger than Burrow), he has the pedigree and obvious physical talent as a former No. 3 overall pick and he’s about to play with real weapons and playcalling for the first time in his professional career. If Christian McCaffrey is back healthy, he will combine with Anderson and D.J. Moore to form one of the more formidable weapon trios in the league. The Panthers are also in prime position to snag one of the top offensive tackles in the draft. I’m gonna bet on all those factors indicating improved performance.
Darnold will be in a much better situation than he has been since he was drafted, but that’s a double-edged sword. He’ll have a better chance of thriving, but he could very well be done as an NFL starter if he fails with a better supporting cast. The time has come for him to follow through on the potential he’s teased since his days at USC.
“Film Room” runs every other Thursday.