I started the “Drive by Drive” series with the goal of taking an in-depth look at rookie quarterbacks. I realized that the public gets less exposure to the full-pictures of these guys because they don’t get the number of national games that other teams do. Obviously, a quarterback who is taken highly in the first round is often going to a bad team; bad teams don’t get the same number of Sunday Night games, Monday Night games, etc.
But this week was a tough week to really look at the rookies. Zach Wilson was hurt in the first half against the Patriots and will miss the next two weeks, at the least. On the other side, Mac Jones’ Patriots dominated the game so thoroughly that I don’t believe it serves as a strong game for analysis. We’ve already looked at Justin Fields twice, and the Bears were so overmatched against Tampa Bay that it didn’t make sense to dive into that contest, either. Trevor Lawrence’s Jaguars were on their bye this week.
So, I decided to take a look at Sam Darnold and the Carolina Panthers. After a 3-0 start to the season, the Panthers have lost four-straight, and Sam Darnold was benched late in the game in favor of PJ Walker. Was it all his fault? Can he turn it around? Should they roll the dice on a Deshaun Watson trade? Let’s dive into the tape…
First Drive: Starting on own 27, 14:56 left in 1st quarter, tied 0-0
The Panthers start the game with tempo; first play was a quick screen to WR Robby Anderson, who coaches have said they need to get more involved. They go no-huddle on second down (short run) and third down. Darnold escapes a sack and finds his outlet, Hubbard, who comes up just shy of the first down marker. The Panthers continue no-huddle, leave the offense on the field, make it look as though they’re just trying draw the Giants offsides and hand it to Hubbard, who picks up the first down. Early aggression by Matt Rhule, going for a fourth-down in Panthers’ territory, showed some confidence in his offense.
Four straight runs moved the ball into NYG territory, eventually setting up a 3rd-and-6 from the NYG 39. Darnold has time and finds his TE Tommy Tremble over the middle for the conversion. Unfortunately for Carolina, the drive stalls thanks to an off-the-mark throw on first down to DJ Moore, a short run, and a short completion. The Panthers connect on a 45-yard field goal to take a 3-0 lead.
Tempo worked well for the Panthers, though they came out of it later in the drive. Darnold made a great play to avoid a sack and set up a short fourth down. But he missed DJ Moore on an easy first-down throw later that put them behind the chains. Darnold was 4-for-5 passing on the opening drive, but none of the throws were more than five yards down the field and went for a total of 16 yards.
Second Drive: Starting on own 12, 5:07 left in the first quarter, Panthers lead 3-0
After the Giants punt, Carolina starts its second drive deep in their own territory. They quickly go three-and-out. Darnold attempted two passes on the drive, and neither traveled more than five yards past the LOS.
Third Drive: Starting on own 2, 36 seconds left in the first quarter, Panthers lead 3-0
The Giants drove deep into Panther territory but failed on a fourth-and-goal, giving Darnold and the Carolina the offense the ball in the shadow of their own goal posts. After a short Hubbard run and an incomplete checkdown pass to Hubbard, the Panthers have 3rd-and-9 from the 3 yard line. The Giants ran a stunt on the DL and got pressure on Darnold right up the middle, and he panicked and threw the ball into the ground. Intentional grounding was called, and the Giants were awarded a safety to make it a 3-2 game.
Fourth Drive: Starting on own 16, 12:51 left in the second quarter, Giants lead 5-3
The Giants kicked a field goal on their drive following the safety free-kick, and the Panthers began inside their own 20 trailing 5-3. Then comes another three-and-out, their third-straight drive running only three offensive plays. They started with Hubbard on the ground, then ran a quick swing pass to Robby Anderson, followed by an incomplete pass to Anderson across the middle, who was well-covered but had a chance to make the catch for a first down. Darnold had time and surveyed several options, but the downfield coverage was good and Carolina punted again.
Carolina returned to the no-huddle, and it was a rough drive for Anderson. They made a concerted effort to get him the ball, and he had some room on the swing pass but ran into his teammate, Moore, and then dropped a catchable ball on third down. To this point, Darnold was 5-for-9 passing for just 19 yards. The third down throw to Anderson traveled six yards in the air beyond the LOS, his longest attempted pass of the game.
Fifth Drive: Starting on own 23, 8:13 left in the second quarter, Giants lead 5-3
The Giants quickly punt, and Carolina began in their own territory again. On a 3rd-and-1 from the 32 yard line, Darnold finally pushed the ball down the field. He rolled out to his left, threw a little bit across his body and hit DJ Moore in stride for 12 yards. It was the first pass of the day that traveled at least 10 yards in the air beyond the LOS. The next play, Darnold used a pump fake to get a blitzer off his feet and open a window downfield before hitting Moore again on another ball traveling past the sticks. Moore broke a tackle and was able to pick up 21 yards.
Now in Giants territory, they rua and a short swing pass pick up another first down the NYG 23 yard line. A quick pass to Hubbard on play-action got the ball inside the 15, but a 4-yard loss on a rush and a holding penalty on an incomplete pass set up a 2nd-and-24 from the 25 yard line. Darnold made a terrible decision and a terrible throw, and he was intercepted for the 7th time in the past four games. It is unclear what he was even looking at, as the ball went right into James Bradberry’s chest and the nearest Panther receiver was at least three yards away.
Sixth Drive: Starting on own 20, 55 seconds left in the half, Giants lead 5-3
Darnold was sacked on first down and the Panthers take a timeout, still thinking about scoring before the half. But a short completion followed by an incompletion ended any hopes of that. Carolina punted and the game went to halftime. Darnold’s first-half numbers: 12-for-18, 85 yards, 1 INT.
Seventh Drive: Starting on own 37, 13:38 left in the third quarter, Giants lead 5-3
The Giants got the ball to start the second half, but went three-and-out. The Panthers didn’t do much better, though they picked up one first down before punting it right back. The first down came on a nice, quick throw to hit DJ Moore on a slant for 13 yards. On a 3rd-and-2 from inside Giants’ territory (NYG 42), Darnold took a sack. Not much he could do, as another DL stunt by the Giants confused the Panthers’ offensive line.
Eighth & Ninth Drives
I’m going to put these drives together because the results are the same: Carolina went three-and-out on both. On drive No. 8, Darnold missed an open receiver for an easy first down. He failed to set his feet and short-armed the throw, succumbing to phantom pressure. On drive No. 9, which came after the Giants finally got into the endzone to take a 12-3 lead towards the end of the third quarter, Darnold made a bad throw on first down despite no pressure. Then, a “pop pass” went nowhere and Darnold failed to find anyone open on third down and runs out of bounds. Another punt ensued.
That would be the last we would see of Sam Darnold, as PJ Walker would take over after the Giants kicked a field goal to make it 15-3.
The Panthers’ third quarter recap: three drives, one first down, three punts, two three-and-outs, 22 yards.
Darnold’s final numbers: 16-for-25 passing, 111 yards (4.4 yards per attempt), 1 INT and 3 sacks. He finished with a 57.3 rating and a 10.7 QBR.
PJ Walker took over and I’ll quickly summarize what we saw from him: not much better. His first two drives netted minus-22 yards and led to one punt and one turnover-on-downs. His final drive came with the game essentially over, but they did at least gain 42 yards on 11 plays before another turnover-on-downs.
Darnold did not look good, but the Panthers’ offense desperately misses Christian McCaffrey, and they need rookie WR Terrace Marshall to get healthy as well. Moore is the only legitimate playmaker on that side of the ball and teams are starting to key onto him. They tried to get Robby Anderson more involved, but he played poorly. The team was also without its starting left tackle, Cam Erving, and starting guard John Miller suffered an ankle sprain in the 3rd quarter that will keep him out for at least a few weeks.
Darnold can be effective enough with playmakers around him, when he isn’t asked to do much except protect the ball and get it into their hands. However, in a game like this where guys aren’t winning at the line of scrimmage and the offensive line is struggling and banged-up, he is not good enough to put the team on his back and go out and make plays.
He had some chances to make plays, but didn’t come through, and he threw a terrible interception when the team should have at least come away with three points. After feeling some pressure early, Darnold definitely started to get “happy feet” and it conjured up thoughts about his “seeing ghosts” game against the Patriots. Interestingly, that game also happened about a week before Halloween, so maybe Darnold actually does see ghosts on the field in October. That’s bad news for the team because they play on Halloween next Sunday in Atlanta.