CHARLOTTE – The last week of Sam Darnold’s life has been a little bit of a blur.
So when he landed in Charlotte on Sunday afternoon to begin the next chapter of his football career, the new Panthers quarterback admitted he was still sorting out the way he felt about the trade that brought him from the Jets, an abrupt change to his career plan.
“There’s a little bit of both — relief and excitement,” Darnold said. “There’s been so much uncertainty this offseason, not knowing what your future was going to look like, that was hard.
“But now that I’m in Charlotte, I’m excited, and yeah, I guess I am kind of relieved to be here.”
For the 23-year-old quarterback, the mixed feelings come partly from the fact he never imagined being here. From the moment he was drafted third overall by the Jets in 2018, he figured he’d stay there his entire career and have great success, the way everyone does when they’re drafted.
But the business of the NFL took over, and with the Jets earning the second overall pick in this year’s draft, they made the decision to cast their lot with an even younger model (expected to be Brigham Young’s Zach Wilson).
Darnold admitted that reality was difficult to swallow, but he saw the flip side of the transaction as beneficial, once he recalled the conversations with his agent during which the possibility of joining the Panthers emerged.
“Those conversations were tough,” Darnold said. “I imagined I was going to be the franchise quarterback of the New York Jets for a long time. And once you realize that the team that drafted you is moving on, it stings a little bit.”
The pain of that is soothed by the fact he’s walking into what ought to be a good situation for any quarterback.
A healthy Christian McCaffrey is one of the most dynamic offensive players in the league. Robby Anderson he knows from their two years together with the Jets, and having a wide receiver such as DJ Moore on the other side gives Darnold the opportunity to make plays downfield with regularity.
He’s been texting back and forth with Anderson in recent days, and picks up on the excitement of coming to a team with more reliable offensive weapons. But he also went on and on about working with Panthers head coach Matt Rhule and offensive coordinator Joe Brady, and what he described as “a lot of great players on defense.”
“The culture that’s being set here is amazing,” Darnold said. “That’s probably the part that intrigues me the most about this.”
But the level of comfort he’s already feeling with his new team goes back deeper than a player he knows, or a few more good ones, or the boost that comes with any fresh start.
His former Jets teammate Josh McCown, who also played for the Panthers from 2008-09 and counseled Darnold through his rookie year in New York, pointed out a more subtle connection which could help with Darnold’s transition to his new home.
The year before Darnold arrived in New York (2017), McCown was there when John Morton replaced Chan Gailey as offensive coordinator. Morton’s previous job was as the wide receivers coach with the Saints. As McCown explained, even after head coach Todd Bowles replaced Morton with offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates in 2018, the passing game concepts for Darnold’s rookie year remained consistent from the previous year, based on the Saints’ principles which Brady grew up on. (Bates did adapt the Jets’ running game that year, implementing more of the outside zone system the 49ers are running under Kyle Shanahan.)
“The stuff Sam was asked to do as a rookie is really similar to what Joe Brady and the Panthers want to do now,” McCown said. “He really did have a comfort with that passing game, and he flourished in it.
“I think from a schematic standpoint, this could be a real sweet spot for Sam.”
Darnold’s still getting to know his new coaches, and is having his first full day of face-to-face interaction with them Monday. And while it’s too soon to know what to expect this year, he acknowledged that McCown’s point was valid.
“For sure, there are some similarities to what I did my rookie season,” Darnold said of the film he’s watched of the 2020 Panthers. “The system was good for me, and I felt like I settled in nicely.”
But beyond any Xs and Os (or any Christians or Joes), Darnold said he mostly feels grateful to be in Charlotte, to have a chance to hit reset on his career at such a young age, and to be in a place where active steps were taken to acquire him.
“To go from being unwanted to being wanted is huge,” Darnold said. “Getting that news that you’re going to be traded, of a team saying, ‘Hey, we didn’t want you,” for whatever reason, is hard.
“But right now, I feel great about it, and I’m excited to get here, and get started.”
Courtesy – Carolina Panthers