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MAQB: Sam Darnold Has Much More Support Around Him on the Panthers

The former Jets QB is in a much better position to succeed now that he's gotten a fresh start. Plus, will teams copy the Ravens' plans against the Chiefs, where does Justin Fields need to grow and Carson Wentz has to take care of himself.

What an eventful 24 hours of football we’ve had. Let’s dive into leftovers …

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• Honestly, this contrast was tough to miss on Sunday:

Panthers QB Sam Darnold: 26-for-38, 305 yards, 2 TDs, INT, 99.1 rating.

Jets QB Zach Wilson: 19-for-33, 210 yards, 0 TDs, 4 INTs, 37.0 rating.

Now, I really do think Robert Saleh is going to do better with Wilson, over time, than he did on Sunday—remember, he told Wilson on draft day that the organization would lift him up and wouldn’t ask for things the other way around. But, man, does Darnold look in control and competent with less asked of him (and Christian McCaffrey next to him). One key, I was told, was Panthers OC Joe Brady’s tailoring his scheme to Darnold’s strengths and taking some of the mental load off him in an effort to get him playing fast and instinctively. Another, Darnold himself told me, was Brady’s giving Darnold options within the structure of the scheme out on the field—and building in alternatives so he never has to snap the ball into a bad call. “It's just progression football,” Darnold said. “It's getting in the right play, if we're not in the right one, we got certain alerts for certain coverage. It's good football. To be able to get in the right play, if [Brady] calls a play and I feel like it's not a great play or it's the look we didn't want for that play, then I can check out of it and get into a good play. So that's kind of what I really like about this offense, is you kind of have options to be able to change things at the line of scrimmage.” And having those defined options, without forcing Darnold to run the whole show, brings natural buy-in, since it’s Darnold himself seeing it and adjusting as he goes. Then, there’s the presence of McCaffrey (“It's all up to the defense and how they want to guard Christian and if they want to double him or maybe cloud his side or bring two guys to his side, and we got other guys who can beat them as well, so it's fun when 22’s in there”) and a fleet of complementary pieces (D.J. Moore, Robbie Anderson) around him. Long story short, Darnold has a lot of help. And for a young quarterback—whether it’s a rookie trying to get his footing or a guy trying to find solid ground after a shaky start—having that’s almost always a big factor in whether you make it or you don’t.

• I’m not saying the Ravens cracked the code on the Chiefs on Sunday night, but I think it’s going to be interesting to see if teams try to duplicate the plan Baltimore defensive coordinator Wink Martindale put out there, because it’s a little different than what Patrick Mahomes has seen before, and Kansas City struggled with it at times. The idea from the start was to show a three-man rush on passing downs, and have an off-ball rusher as the fourth man in. But that fourth man (It was Odafe Oweh, DeShon Elliott, Chris Board and Brandon Stephens at different points), wouldn’t rush right away. Instead, that player would hit Travis Kelce off the line, or reroute a receiver, then go once the offensive line stopped accounting for blitzers. The goal was to throw off Mahomes’s timing, and his receivers’ timing, and trick the quarterback into thinking he had time before coming in with the fourth guy late. And the result? Kansas City converted just 16% of its third downs, the look allowed the Ravens to keep more speed on the field (since DBs were rushing in the package) to match the Chiefs’ speed on passing downs and it even allowed for the defense to make up for the in-game losses of Elliott and nose tackle Brandon Williams. Now, K.C. still wound up with 405 yards and 35 points (though seven of those were scored on defense). But with Marcus Peters, Derek Wolfe, L.J. Fort and Jimmy Smith out, and then Elliott and Peters down, this wrinkle gave the Ravens a chance, and helped extend the game into the fourth quarter and set Baltimore up to win. It’ll be interesting to see if the Chiefs get a copycat effort or two off of this the next few weeks.

• One more thing from the Ravens’ scintillating win: You can really feel how much John Harbaugh loves the team he’s got. The above injuries are compounded by the losses of J.K. Dobbins, Gus Edwards and Ronnie Stanley on offense (and the receiver group has dealt with injuries for a couple of months now), and now of it has pushed the Ravens far off track. And on Monday, they found a way despite playing on a short week, and coming off a road loss on Monday night on the other side of the country. “To me, that's really the story,” Harbaugh said. “I never question the toughness, the grit, the mental toughness, the persistence, the determination—all those are words that you want to use—I've never questioned that about our guys. I mean, that's our guys and that's the thing I love and respect the most about our guys. It's always been that way. I don't see it changing. That's who these guys are, and that's the thing that makes me the most proud to be around these guys. And really in the end, that's probably why you want to go for it in that situation. Just because they deserve it because of that thing right there.” The Ravens, even shorthanded, are going to be a tough out all year.

• I think Justin Fields is going to be a really good player, but after talking with some coaches on Monday, and knowing what the Bengals saw, I can see why the Bears are slow-playing his entry into the lineup. Presented with extended action, the defense saw a young quarterback still playing off his ability and instinct—tucking the ball after his first read and running, putting the ball in peril too much—while showing flashes of what he could become, with some seasoning. And at the very end of his team’s win over Cincinnati, both edges of that sword surfaced. On a third-and-7, with Chicago up 20–10, with the ball, and 3:50 left, Fields simply didn’t see linebacker Logan Wilson falling off into coverage, and what Fields figured would be an easy completion to Marquise Goodwin wound up going the other way with Wilson’s getting right in the quarterback’s passing lane. Joe Burrow then found Tee Higgins to cover the seven yards left to make it 20–17. Which is where Fields flipped the script. On third-and-9, with 2:55 left, Fields dropped back, decided not to take another chance downfield, and easily slipped an attempted tackle by defensive end Trey Hendrickson, and burst around the left end to pick up the first down and take a big step toward putting the game away. And yes, Fields will need the experience of seeing these things to get better—his real growth will come in being able to diagnosis the defense (his progress learning the offense is right on track). Thing is, when you’ve got a team you believe that can win on its run game and defense, are you O.K. with living through those growing pains? That’s the real question here. And if Andy Dalton’s out a couple of weeks, the Bears would get a real view of what that might look like. Which is why, I think, Nagy left his options open on Sunday and Monday.

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• It’s hard to blame a player for getting hurt, but Carson Wentz has long needed to be more judicious with how he plays. And while the hit on which he hurt his ankle(s) would’ve been tough to avoid (Aaron Donald ran him down from behind and bent him backwards), it was another snap where Wentz held the ball and gave the defense time to get to him. In other spots, he stuck his nose into places where he could’ve managed to save the damage on his body. And again, some of this is bad luck. But if this bid for a football rebirth in Indy is going to work, Wentz has to stay on the field, and based on how often he gets hurt, a big part of that should probably be an adjustment to his playing style. Ben Roethlisberger went through this nearly a decade ago, when Todd Haley arrived as his new OC in Pittsburgh. And now, very clearly, it’s Wentz’s turn to make the changes he needs to, just to give himself a chance.

• I asked Kliff Kingsbury on Sunday night if the game he’d just finished made him feel like he was back in the Big 12. And he laughed and declined to dismiss the idea. “Yeah,” he responded. “I thought they were tremendous on offense. [Vikings OC] Klint Kubiak, I've known a long time. He's very sharp, and we didn't have any answers in that first half. They were keeping us off-balanced running it, throwing it, screen game. And it was just back and forth, and then I really think the kick ultimately won us the game that Matt [Prater] made from 60 yards. It was an unbelievable kick.” All that said, there was some value to Kingsbury in the free-wheeling way the game was played—to him, it was a very clear test of his team’s maturity. He and I had talked about that over the summer, how little things had killed the Cardinals the last two years, and how bringing in guys like J.J. Watt, A.J. Green and Rodney Hudson was really an effort to expedite growth in that area. And it’s still early, of course, but the haymaker-after-haymaker feel for the Vikings game did give Kingsbury a nice little window on where his team stands: “No doubt. No doubt. I mean, I think you have a veteran presence like that in your locker room and there's no panic. They've been through it all, and they just kept fighting and found a way at the end.” As a result, Arizona’s 2–0, and locked in a tie with the Rams and Niners atop the NFC West.

• Cowboys rookie Micah Parsons had a sack and four quarterback hurries on Sunday, and sure looks like part of, at least, the short-term solution in trying to plug the hole left by star edge rusher DeMarcus Lawrence. And that’s interesting because while Parsons was an off-ball linebacker at Penn State, and was drafted as one into the pros, he was actually recruited out of high school to be an edge rusher by pretty much every school but Penn State. If he’d gone to Ohio State, in fact, he’d have played defensive end and walked into a position group room, as a freshman, with Nick Bosa and Chase Young in it. Now, Parsons is a good enough athlete to give him the ability to play any number of spots on defense. But that he rushed so well on Sunday at least makes the context to his perceived ability in that area of the game interesting.

49ers' Richard Sherman speaks at a press conference

• It sure sounds like Richard Sherman’s got himself in a much better place now, and my understanding is he’s been working hard in hopes of hooking on with an NFL team and playing this fall. Three have reached out thus far—the Seahawks, 49ers and Buccaneers. The first two, obviously, are very familiar with him. And the third has made a habit over the last year of taking a hard look at almost every accomplished vet that comes available.

• I think it’s worth passing along, again, what Texans coach David Culley told me last week on where he and franchise quarterback Deshaun Watson stand. “[GM] Nick [Caserio] and I, and our staff, sat down and we decided that this is how we were gonna approach things,” Culley said. “And to not only Nick's credit and our staff's credit, Deshaun did a heck of a job of being able to work with us and how we wanted to handle this particular situation. And basically, this worked out really good for both of us from the standpoint of this is how we gotta deal with it, this is the situation, and I think it was both of us working together, our team and him working together, and it hasn't been a distraction. He hasn't been a distraction. And basically, every day we come to practice it's always about the Houston Texans, not about anything else. He's helped us do that.” The bottom line, Watson knows the score. The Texans aren’t trading him until they’re able to get full price for him or something significant changes. And they’re almost certainly not going to put him in uniform between now and then either.

• I’m fascinated to see the way the first 15 minutes of Monday night’s Packers-Lions game plays out. Generally, when an accomplished team like Green Bay takes it on the chin like the Packers did in the opener, it’s on the player leadership to rattle any cages that need to be rattled. Thing is, through most of this calendar year, Aaron Rodgers has carried himself in a sort of aloof way, as if the team’s concerns aren’t primary among his concerns. So how did he handle this week? Will the Packers come out with an edge and bury the rebuilding Lions quickly? Will we be able to see the energy and emotion of a team that just got knocked to the canvas? For that matter, will any dirty laundry have been aired in the production meetings (or maybe even to Brett Favre, for ESPN’s Manning Cast)? I’m definitely intrigued to see how this next step plays out.

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