The ghosts are still there.
The play the Panthers didn’t want you to see occurred on the second snap of the second quarter in the final preseason game.
Sam Darnold took the snap and began going through his reads. He’d been accurate up until that point, completing 9 of his first 11 passes for 66 yards. Most of his throws were close to the line of scrimmage and released quickly. Pro Football Focus would calculate that he was releasing the ball after an average of 2.6 seconds and throwing it within 4½ yards of the line.
There were signs of trouble near the end of the first quarter, however. He cut bait and scrambled on a snap near the end of the last drive, and he was sacked on the last play of the first quarter. He opened the second quarter with a miscommunication with Robby Anderson on an incompletion that was far off the mark.
Then it happened.
Steelers end Cassius Marsh stunted and got free between the center and guard. Suddenly, he was in Darnold’s face.
Darnold spun away from him, turning his back to the line briefly. When he finished his spin and faced forward, linebacker Jamir Jones was there, ready to wrap him up if Marsh didn’t finish the job.
Sandwiched between the two defenders, Darnold did the unthinkable. He jumped and threw the ball blindly as he was hit from two sides. The ball hit offensive lineman Cam Erving and bounced backward, where players from both teams fell on it.
It was ruled an incompletion, not a fumble. Darnold famously said that he “saw ghosts” while under pressure in a game against the Patriots during his New York Jets days. Perhaps the referees saw one as well because Darnold was not called for grounding despite the fact no eligible receiver was visible in the television shot of the play.
The Panthers kept running back Christian McCaffrey off the field for the entire preseason. After he missed most of last season with ankle, shoulder and thigh injuries, there was no reason to risk him physically in games that didn’t count.
The team also left Darnold off the field for the first game and played him in an extremely limited role in the second week of preseason. The damage they were hoping to avoid wasn’t to his body, however, but rather to his psyche.
Darnold endured three nightmare years in New York, seeing ghosts and running for his life behind a shaky line. Now, as he and the Panthers prepare to face his old team in the season opener, the question remains: How will he react under pressure?
“For me, I’m learning from what works and what doesn’t,” Darnold said of the makeover his game has undergone over the offseason, one that includes a new mindset. “I’m keeping things that work and getting rid of bad habits.”
What habits would those be?
“I’m trying to keep calm in the pocket,” he admitted. “I mean my feet. Keep my feet calm. Understand my progressions. If a guy’s in my face or I feel like I need to get out, I’m able to do that. But stay calm, go through progressions, hit the open guy.”
Even in his description of how he’s supposed to be doing things, he interrupted himself with concerns over pressure from the pass rush, likely not a good sign.
“It’s just understanding, being confident in my protections — the offensive line — trust in the guys running routes. Trust that all 11 people will do their job,” he said, then immediately went back to concerns over what may go wrong. “It’s peace of mind, just going through the progressions. If I feel something or feel like it’s not there, being able to escape and make a play.”
While Darnold will likely feel motivated facing his old team, the truth is the Jets have undergone a transformation since he left. Anderson, whose departure preceded Darnold’s by one season, said, “It’s just another opponent to me. It’s not really my old group anyway. There’s two, maybe three guys left that I played with.”
In their place is a new regime, led by coach Robert Saleh, a defensive mastermind during his days as the 49ers’ coordinator.
Panthers coach Matt Rhule has been watching tape of the 49ers defense to see what to expect from Saleh’s Jets — and none of it bodes well for a quarterback looking to build confidence in the pocket.
“They’re gonna get after you,” Rhule said. “Be physical, run to the football. They’re well put together defensively. They always will have a good rush, tremendous defensive linemen that they’ve drafted over the last few years.”
Also not a good sign — Carolina hasn’t exactly been a model of stability on the offensive line in recent years, and the team took a hit up front this week when right guard John Miller was ruled out for the game after being placed on the COVID list. Dennis Daley will get the start instead.
“We’re really comfortable with Dennis,” Rhule said. “We feel like he should be starting. He has the skill set of a starter. He’s just had some bumps along the way.”
And when an offensive lineman “has bumps along the way,” it’s usually the quarterback who ends up feeling them, both in their body and in their mind.
As much as the Panthers have tried to hide them, the ghosts are still there. The question remains: What will Sam Darnold do when he sees them?