Whats different with Sam Darnold? How Panthers QB is breaking free of Adam Gase shackles

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

Small sample size considered, Darnold has looked markedly better through two games with the Panthers than he did in three years with the Jets. While Darnold has looked more and more like a serviceable NFL starter, that’s not necessarily foreign to those who have followed his career.

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

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

Darnold still has a long way to go to be a serviceable quarterback in the NFL, let alone the next “Ryan Tannehill.” But the very early returns for Darnold to reinvigorate his career are positive, and a national audience is about to see why on Thursday night.

A change in game

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

Entering Thursday night’s matchup vs. the Texans, Darnold has attempted 33 short (0-9 yard) throws, per Pro Football Focus. Over a 17-game season, that could make for 280 short-yardage throw attempts (should play count and snaps remain roughly the same), which would be 130 more than he attempted in 2020 (152). 

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

The positive to take out of this if you’re a Panthers fan is Darnold’s insistence and persistence on taking what the defense gives him. That makes a marked difference from his Hero Ball tendencies he showcased while with the Jets through his first three seasons in the NFL. There’s nothing wrong with letting your playmakers make plays, after all.

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

A change in scenery

Supporting cast matters in the NFL, especially for a young quarterback. Darnold didn’t exactly have that through three years with the Jets, whether it was on the field or in the coach’s room.

It starts with the offense: Carolina offensive coordinator Joe Brady is heralded as one of the league’s brightest offensive minds, and the 32-year-old interviewed with the Eagles, Texans and Chargers for their head coaching spots this past offseason. While those vacancies were filled, Brady getting the opportunity to try and rebuild Darnold will be a gold star on his resume and catapult him to the top of heap of coaching candidates next season.

Brady’s coaching — and the scheme — has certainly helped Darnold, too.

“It’s just progression football,” Darnold told SI’s Albert Breer recently regarding the Carolina offense. “It’s getting in the right play, if we’re not in the right one, we got certain alerts for certain coverage. It’s good football. To be able to get in the right play, if [Brady] calls 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 check out of it and get into a good play.

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

It also helps that, aside from McCaffrey, Darnold is surrounded by a really, really good group of receivers. DJ Moore is coming off back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, Darnold has familiarity with wideout Robby Anderson from his Jets days and Terrace Marshall, drafted in 2021, has promise as a fifth-rounder.

Getting away from the Jets helped — who would have thunk it?

A change in … age?

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

As mentioned, Darnold’s propensity to take what the defense gives him early on is going to only help him and the Panthers moving forward. With a seemingly renewed focus on toning down the improvisation outside the pocket and playing within structure, Darnold’s errors from years past haven’t been as apparent through the first few games.

He does still have the tendency to turn the ball over with some knucklehead 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.

Carolina — and Darnold — better hope that it stays that way the rest of the season.

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