KREST: Darnold’s struggles put Panthers back to square one

“The Panthers weren’t cheap, just wrong. They thought they were the smartest ones in the room.”

Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold looks to pass during a Carolina preseason game. (Nell Redmond / AP Photo)

With a generational class of quarterbacks in this year’s draft, nearly half of the teams in the NFL made a change at that position in the offseason, either to clear space for a highly rated rookie or take advantage of the dominoes falling as other teams did.

Matt Stafford, Carson Wentz and Jared Goff were among the big-name veterans to change teams in the offseason frenzy.

The Panthers jumped into the mix and emerged with Sam Darnold. A former No. 3 overall pick, Darnold had struggled with the Jets in three years. The Panthers were confident that a new spot would provide a new beginning for the beleaguered Darnold.

In essence, they uttered the phrase that has ended as many coaching careers as “send out the field goal unit”:

“We can fix him.”

Nine games later, it’s clear that nothing has been fixed. Darnold has 11 interceptions against just seven touchdowns, the highest interception rate and lowest touchdown rate of his career. He’s also posting his worst-ever quarterback rating.

Even worse than his stat line has been the eye test. The consensus on Darnold was that a shaky Jets line had damaged his confidence. Putting him behind an equally shaky Panthers line wasn’t the key to turning that around, however.

Darnold has been sacked 22 times, but the worst moments of his Panthers tenure haven’t been when he’s been tackled — they’re when he thinks he’s about to be.

Darnold has been unsettled in the pocket, looking for the first available opportunity to cut and run. It has led to impressive gains on the ground at times — he briefly led the NFL in rushing touchdowns. More often, however, it’s led to bad decisions.

Sunday against New England — and one of those rookie quarterbacks from the draft class, Mac Jones — Darnold picked up an intentional grounding penalty in the shadow of his goalpost when he felt the rush and just … threw.

There was no one in sight, which was probably the best result the Panthers could have hoped for. It could easily have gone directly into the arms of a Patriots defender.

Darnold has regressed on the field, as well as during games. The Panthers’ offense has been dreadful in the third quarter, when coaches have had the opportunity to regroup at halftime and make adjustments. Against New England, Darnold threw interceptions on three straight possessions in the third and fourth quarter.

After the game, coach Matt Rhule very pointedly refused to give Darnold a vote of confidence. When asked directly, “Does Sam Darnold still give you the best opportunity to win?” he responded with, “I’ll watch the tape before I make some big statement.”

There are some questions that require an immediate, unqualified answer — even if it’s a lie.

“Did your client commit the murder?” is one.

“Do you still love me?” is another.

“Does your quarterback still give you the best chance to win?” is in that category. If you can’t answer that question without reviewing film, you already have your answer.

The Panthers’ coaching staff haven’t been able to fix Darnold, in the big picture or during the game. And the fact they thought they could should cast doubt on their ability to fix the mess they’ve created.

Teddy Bridgewater, the veteran that Rhule soured on after several fourth quarter drives came up short last year, is now starting for Denver. He has a winning record, something he’s posted for every team he’s played for — except Carolina. He also has the best completion percentage, touchdown rate and passer rating of his career.

The Panthers weren’t trying to save money with the Darnold move. They weren’t cheap, just wrong. They thought they were the smartest ones in the room, but, as P.T. Barnum once said, there’s someone like them born every minute.

The Panthers won’t have the bench Darnold — at least yet. Darnold was diagnosed with a fracture in his right scapula and will miss multiple games.

The cupboard behind him may not be bare, but it’s filled with stuff that will eventually get donated to the church food drive. One of Rhule’s “Temple guys,” P.J. Walker, is the only backup currently on the roster. The team cut third-round draft pick Wil Grier to keep him. Grier was drafted by the previous regime, and, as we’ve established, the current Panthers brain trust is fairly certain they’re the smartest in the room.

Perhaps this was all some master plan to bide time until they could draft Sam Howell. Perhaps the guys making the adjustments that led to Sunday’s interception trifecta will find a way out.

Perhaps the worst thing David Tepper could do is look at the mistake-prone brain trust and think, “I can fix them.”