CHARLOTTE — Perhaps the third time is the charm for the Carolina Panthers.
After going through two starting quarterbacks this season, the Panthers turned to last year’s starter, Sam Darnold, as their third option, and he made the most of it. Darnold led the offense to a 23-10 win over the visiting Denver Broncos on Sunday, just the third time in the last 11 games that the Panthers offense has scored as many points.
Darnold, who opened the season on the injured reserve list due to a preseason sprained ankle, watched Baker Mayfield begin the season as starter, then struggle in the role before suffering an ankle injury of his own. Career backup PJ Walker took over and was essentially a game manager as the team relied heavily on its running game. Walker also went down with a sprained ankle, and Mayfield returned to the starting role. But a dismal game against Baltimore last week convinced interim coach Steve Wilks to give Darnold a shot.
He didn’t produce eye-popping numbers, but Darnold moved the offense, produced points and, while the running game continued to produce, he was more than a game manager, producing big plays on his own.
Darnold was 11 for-l 19 for 164 yards and a touchdown. He also rushed — or rather, rolled — for a score and set up a field goal with a 52-yard completion to DJ Moore.
“Sam Darnold, when given the opportunity to drop back in the pocket, he (did well),” said Wilks. “We took our shots down the field, which I felt like we could do today. He did a great job of connecting with DJ on that deep one.”
Darnold also got a boost from 113 rushing yards by D’Onta Foreman, who has stepped up given the chance to start following the trade of Christian McCaffery. In the six games since the All-Pro was dealt away, his former backup, Foreman, has hit 100 yards four times.
The team rolled Darnold out on several passes, including a 15-yard completion to Ian Thomas on Carolina’s first play from scrimmage. That allowed Darnold to take advantage of his mobility and also avoid the “happy feet” in the pocket that has plagued him throughout his career when protection breaks down.
“I thought he did a good job today,” Wilks said. “I still have to evaluate the tape, but again, managed the game, ran the offense efficiently, connected down the field at times. We moved the pocket. Did a great job getting outside. We tried to establish that early on so, on the surface, pretty good.”
Perhaps most importantly, Darnold avoided the big mistake that highlighted his struggles last season. In 12 games with the Panthers prior to Sunday, he threw 13 interceptions, fumbled nine times and took 35 sacks. He was not intercepted or sacked on Sunday, and his one fumble set up an odd highlight clip for him.
With Carolina leading 10-3 and the Panthers on their first possession of the second half, Darnold moved the team from its own 28 to the Denver 2, passing 2 for 2 for 34 yards on the drive. On second down, he faked a play action handoff and kept the ball, running around right end. Denver linebacker Josey Jewell poked the ball out, and Darnold jumped on it to recover at the 1-yard line. He then realized that no Broncos defender had touched him while he was on the ground, meaning the play was not yet over. So he rolled over the goal line for the touchdown.
“It’s someone who is in tune to the situation and understands the rules of the game,” Wilks said. “We have to make sure we hold onto it and protect it, but he was quick to get on it and realized no one touched him. Yes, it was smart of him rolling into the end zone.”
“I’ve practiced that since I was a kid, rolling in the grass,” Darnold joked. “I figured I would just try to get in the end zone any way possible. … Whenever you are on the goal line, it’s whatever you can do to get in the end zone. That was kind of my thought process there. It’s a good highlight tape to add to the repertoire, but no, you would like to be able to hold on to the football, make that guy miss and just walk into the end zone, but it was good to get in there.”
The Panthers go into their bye week at 4-8, then head to Seattle to open December. Wilks has already declared that Darnold will be the starter for that game.
“As long as I get to play football, I’m happy,” Darnold said.