Before the Panthers made a miraculous comeback against the Vikings to tie the score at 28-28 late in the fourth quarter, this story was about to question whether Sam Darnold should remain Carolina’s starter at quarterback.
He was terrible for most of Sunday’s game. He turned it over twice and the offense couldn’t get going.
But in a matter of 15 minutes, Darnold found a way to redeem himself. Trailing 28-20 with 2:09 remaining, Darnold led the Panthers on an 11-play, 96-yard drive to tie the score with 49 seconds remaining, sending the game to overtime.
His 41-yard pass to Ian Thomas on fourth-and-10, while he stood in his own end zone with defensive linemen around him, was beautiful.
In the Panthers’ 34-28 overtime loss to the Vikings on Sunday, Darnold was clutch late — an attribute Carolina missed with Teddy Bridgewater in 2020.
But in recent games, his lows have canceled out the highs. The Panthers have lost three consecutive games and aren’t improving offensively.
Darnold has turned it over seven times (six interceptions, one fumble). And even though his receivers did little to help him Sunday — the Panthers had eight drops — it has become clear already that Darnold is not the long-term answer for the Panthers at quarterback.
This was the case with Bridgewater, too, whose time in Carolina soured after the Panthers finished 5-11 and rarely won games in the fourth quarter.
When it comes to their long-term future, the Panthers need a quarterback who can carry the team when things go wrong, like when the unexpected news came Saturday about Christian McCaffrey’s injured-reserve designation.
That’s a huge loss for the Panthers for the next few games, and it’s where the quarterback should step in.
But without McCaffrey, Darnold is playing bad football, with the exception of that last drive.
In the three games with McCaffrey, Darnold threw for 888 yards, three touchdowns, one interception, completed 68% of his passes and ran for five touchdowns.
In the three games without him, Darnold has thrown for 684 yards, four touchdowns, six interceptions and has completed only 54% of his attempts.
“We have to execute better,” Darnold said, when asked about McCaffrey’s absence and how that affects him. “I have to do my part and I have to go out there and take care of the football and get our team down the field however I can.”
It’s hard to play any worse than Darnold did in the first 3 1/2 quarters against the Vikings on Sunday.
His first pass was an interception. He was protected well, but after he failed to find an open receiver, he forced a pass to Robby Anderson, which was picked off by Vikings cornerback Bashaud Breeland.
“It’s just trying to take a deep shot there,” Darnold said. “It felt like it wasn’t there, scrambled around and then obviously with my ball placement gave the DB some room to make a play on it.”
He also had Chris Webber-like gaffe in the second quarter, when he tried to call a timeout on back-to-back plays. (It’s a delay-of-game penalty if teams call two timeouts without a play in between.)
By halftime, Darnold was 5-of-18 passing for 60 yards, and at one point had a passer rating of 0.0. It was a small miracle that the Panthers only trailed 12-10 at halftime.
“We can’t have however many drops we had, we can’t have mistakes, you can’t turn the ball over three times yet again,” Panthers coach Matt Rhule said. “We’re going to have to execute at a higher level. What does execute mean? It means everyone does their job when they have a chance to make a play.”
Darnold finished 17 of 41 for 207 yards, one touchdown and an interception against the Vikings. He also had a fourth-quarter fumble. The Panthers had only one drive go longer than 40 yards, and that was their final drive.
Because of that, the defense spent too much time on the field and wore down in the fourth quarter and overtime.
“What Sam needed today was a little help from his friends at times,” Rhule said. “He needed some plays to be made.”
Darnold said he felt the offense would have scored a touchdown had it had a chance to get the ball in the extra period, but Minnesota won the toss and the Panthers never got an opportunity.
When Rhule was asked what he learned from this game, he replied, “That we have a long way to go.”
The Panthers gambled when they traded for Darnold, who struggled during his three seasons with the Jets. They gave up a 2021 sixth-round pick, and a second- and fourth-round pick in the 2022 draft for Darnold.
The Panthers are tied to him through the end of the 2022 season thanks to their decision to exercise his fifth-year contract option before the season. While his cap number is $4.7 million this season, it goes up to $18.8 million in 2022.
Second-string quarterback P.J. Walker is not a realistic option for the future, either. In four games for the Panthers in 2020, Walker threw one touchdown and five interceptions and completed 57% of his passes.
Their next best option will be to look in the draft next year.
There are still 11 games left in the 2021 season and playoffs are not out of the question. The Panthers expect to get a number of key players back within the next three weeks, including Stephon Gilmore, Shaq Thompson and maybe McCaffrey.
But Darnold has to consistently play like he did late in the fourth quarter Sunday, even if he isn’t their quarterback of the future.