The Panthers’ fingerprints were all over the quarterback carousel this offseason, from their not-so-subtle pursuit of Matt Stafford to the ways in which they may or may not have done their due diligence on the Deshaun Watson front. In that way, the fact that they made a move on Monday was not surprising .
What is surprising, though, was the energy with which they pursued Sam Darnold after Plans A and B did not work out. Lest we forget, Teddy Bridgewater is still on the roster, entering his age-29 season after having completed an admirable 2020 in which his total quarterback rating was within sniffing distance of Kyler Murray and Matt Ryan. Darnold, marred by a broken offensive scheme and a cupboard bare of playmakers, finished dead last in the statistic, which takes into account all major situational factors controlled by a quarterback in a given game.
At first glance, this may feel like a worthwhile reclamation project. Darnold is extremely young. After three long years in New York, he’ll enter this training camp as the presumptive starter at age 24, a negligible age difference between other top quarterbacks in the incoming 2021 class like Mac Jones and Trevor Lawrence. His salary is worth a short-term gamble on a quarterback who acclimated to the league in an offense so irreparably broken that, according to one person well versed in the ins and outs, several different checks and calls were named the same thing, and it took mediation sessions from sage backup Josh McCown in 2018 to sort out the mess.
And that was before the Adam Gase era. He has been catastrophically mismanaged.
But the real question is how much of a marked upgrade he provides over Bridgewater and whether the Panthers should have simply developed a comfort level with the former Pro-Bowler they’re already paying, who has already mastered the Joe Brady offense and was well-versed in its mutual roots inside the Sean Payton tree.
Darnold’s expense was not minimal. While teams tend to devalue picks in future years, Carolina will fork over second- and fourth-round picks next year, which is a boon for the rebuilding Jets. The Jets were also dealing from a position of relative weakness, having sat out last week’s stunning shakeup at the top of the draft, indicating that they were almost certain to be taking a quarterback. Darnold became nakedly available the moment the 49ers came to terms with the Dolphins for the third pick.
Despite having one of the more promising young offensive coordinators in the league (Mike LaFleur) running the most quarterback-friendly system in football, the Jets preferred to roll the dice on yet another high pick rather than develop Darnold in the same offense. Another potential reason for pause, given that an ascending Darnold would be a major rebuilding chip for general manager Joe Douglas (presuming he’d want to trade the No. 2 pick and spin that into a few offensive linemen).
According to former colleague Jonathan Jones, now of CBS, the Panthers have already committed to an $18-plus million fifth-year option for Darnold, in addition to the final year of his rookie contract. They are essentially prolonging their bridge-option quarterbacking phase for an additional year, instead of allowing Bridgewater the chance to showcase his growth in the system.
It would be surprising if the Panthers were internally thrilled about how this all worked out. While Plan C can always hit, leaving us to again finger wag at the Jets and their almost mystical inability to develop quarterback talent, the Panthers are more than likely deepening their holding pattern and squandering assets in the process. The cheaper option might be realizing that what they had wasn’t all that bad to begin with.