NFL

Steady Darnold steps up to lead Panthers to another win

By Sports Desk September 24, 2021

Sam Darnold may never develop into the kind of quarterback who can truly carry a team, but he has been exactly what the Carolina Panthers needed so far this season.  

Despite losing his top offensive weapon early in the second quarter, Darnold turned in yet another efficient if unspectacular performance on Thursday, helping the Panthers defeat the Houston Texans 24-9 to remain unbeaten.  

Darnold did not throw a touchdown pass, but he ran for two TDs and avoided turning the ball over as Carolina remade their game plan on the fly after Christian McCaffrey left the game with a hamstring injury.  

"It's always hard playing without one of your best players, but Sam stepped up and did a tremendous job tonight," tackle Cameron Erving told reporters. 

Panthers head coach Matt Rhule did not speculate on how long McCaffrey might be sidelined, but the Panthers had plenty of experience playing without him last year as he missed all but three games due to ankle and shoulder injuries.  

Darnold was not around for that, and like everyone else in the locker room will be hoping for a speedy return by the All-Pro running back.  

McCaffrey's departure during Thursday’s game just put more responsibility on Darnold's shoulders, but he handled it calmly.  

"We're starting to find our identity as an offence," Darnold said. "I've just got to, whatever play is called, we've got to execute that play. That's my job, is to get us in the right play and make sure we're hitting on all cylinders, and the offence is moving in the right direction." 

According to Stats Perform, Darnold is the second quarterback in the Super Bowl era (since 1966) to throw for at least 250 yards and win in each of his first three games with a team. Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs is the only other QB to do it.  

Darnold is a different kind of quarterback to Mahomes, but he suddenly has one hallmark of the Kansas City star's game: confidence.  

"One thing about Sam: he has some moxie, man," Rhule said. "I mean, it's him just playing within the system but also I think he has a courageousness, but he's not crossing the line and going over the top. He's protecting the football." 

Turnovers have always been a key concern around Darnold – he had 39 interceptions and lost nine fumbles in 38 games with the New York Jets – but he has only two turnovers this season, just one of them an interception.  

That improved ball security has prompted the Panthers' coaching staff to give Darnold a bit more leeway.  

"If you watch the way we called the game, it means we trust him," Rhule said. "Even in that last drive, we were throwing four verticals with him. 

"I just think in my mind, I say to myself all the time, these are professional football players. Let them go play. Don't try to over-manage the game. Let them go make plays." 

Of course, the season is only three games old, and the Week 4 matchup against the Dallas Cowboys will provide the most difficult test yet – particularly if McCaffrey is unavailable.  

But the much-maligned 24-year-old has earned some respect with his performance so far.  

"Sam, he's a gamer," said Panthers linebacker Haason Reddick. "Guy's a flat-out baller right now." 

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