Even through what’s now been a string of disheveled outings by his quarterback, Carolina Panthers head coach Matt Rhule has seemingly steered away from any direct criticism of Sam Darnold.
But, surely, that dud of a performance he left on the field Sunday has to be deserving of at least some blame, right?
. . . right?
On Monday, Rhule addressed reporters following his team’s latest spill, a 34-28 overtime defeat to the Minnesota Vikings. The loss featured another deeply concerning game from Darnold, where he connected on 17 of his 41 attempts for 207 yards, a touchdown, an interception and a fumble.
Darnold has now thrown six interceptions over his last three games, twice as many as his first three combined, and has seen drastic dips in his completion percentage, yards and passer rating.
Okay, Matt. Time to crack the whip. Let’s hear it.
“Sam’s not playing well enough. Let’s start there,” Rhule said.
Yes, let’s. That’s a good start. Keep going . . .
“Which means that Sean [Ryan] and Joe [Brady] and me are not coaching good enough,” he then added.
Oh, well. Um. Perhaps.
A little self-accountability for the coaching staff. Fine. But is there more?
“Now, when I say Sam’s not playing well, what does that mean?” Rhule continued. “That means the offensive line isn’t getting it done for him. It means the running backs aren’t getting it done for him. Everyone on offense. Every receiver, every tight end, every back, every o-lineman. Their job is to help our quarterback play well. We are not getting that done.”
Look, the Panthers offense has fallen into a crater-sized pothole, particularly since the loss of running back Christian McCaffrey. The offensive line has become more exposed, the tight ends are barely of any use through the air and the pass catchers were just charged with the sixth-most drops in any single game over the past decade.
By no means, however, are Darnold’s struggles a byproduct of his supporting cast alone. We don’t have to search any further than his first play of week, in fact, to see his old habits are still present.
1:05pm ET pic.twitter.com/YuvfU5mGdW
— John Ellis (@1PantherPlace) October 17, 2021
On the opening snap against Minnesota, Darnold is provided a pretty clean pocket to pin down his progression. But instead of stepping up and making a choice, either to try or simply chuck it away, he allows his happy footwork and indecision to take him on a completely different path.
He then, as has been the case on many of his interceptions, trusts his arm strength to squeeze a ball into a teeny-tiny window. That, of course, resulted in a disastrous start to the afternoon.
Here’s another instance, in the week prior, of Darnold’s uncertainty getting in the way of a huge play.
Two deep curls vs MOF open. Both LBs have their eye on the RB, but both Robby and DJ are open. Throws the checkdown instead pic.twitter.com/4aHKHRyudE
— Billy M (@BillyM_91) October 13, 2021
The timid nature, something we saw plenty of in Carolina from Teddy Bridgewater in 2020, is quite disappointing, again, considering his above-average arm strength. That could also, in part, give us the answer as to why the deep threat Robby Anderson is not much of a threat at all, in any area of the field, thus far.
You can even go to any of his three picks in that Philadelphia game and attribute those to the poor decision making that’s still carried over.
Film Room: CAR v PHI
2nd/9, -5yl, 3-0 lead.
LCB Slay inside leverage, sinks into C2.
FS w/ urgency to deep 1/2.
Edge movement, no chip. IOL ok here.
Route combo puts TE open on the 7-route.
Darnold locked on DJ, high-risk throw into a narrow C2 void. pic.twitter.com/GusztdaltO
— John Ellis (@1PantherPlace) October 11, 2021
— Philadelphia Eagles (@Eagles) October 10, 2021
Thank ya, Sam.
— NFL (@NFL) October 10, 2021
Rhule then piggybacked those aforementioned comments with a thinly-veiled defense mechanism for their struggling quarterback.
“The shame of the game yesterday to me, when you really go back and watch the game is, you know, we ran the football well. We have just not been committed enough to running it,” he said.
“And that’s gonna change. I can just tell you right now. You’ll see a vastly different look from us moving forward. We’re not gonna line up and drop back and throw it 40 times a game and think that that’s gonna win the game for us. It hasn’t. There’s no McCaffrey, well Chuba [Hubbard] is showing us he can run the football at a high level when given enough opportunities. So we’re gonna redefine who we are. And we’re gonna run the football and we’re gonna protect our quarterback and we’re not gonna turn the ball over anymore.”
You can read between those lines, can’t you?
To Darnold’s credit, he’s taken these losses as a true leader and quarterback should. He hasn’t minced words about his disappointing play of late and has assumed responsibility for it.
Let’s not, though, handle him with kid gloves. As toxic as the situation he faced in New York was, he’s still a fourth-year player. He doesn’t need the blame redirected around him like he’s a rookie.
Quite simply, a good quarterback is one who elevates the play of the supporting cast around him, not the other way around. And no matter how Rhule and the Panthers slice it, that’s not what they have in Darnold.