CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Four months ago, almost to the day, Sam Darnold sat in front of the New York media (virtually) and spoke about his uncertain future with the Jets.
The very next day, much further south, a former Jets quarterback deflected similar questions about his future.
Now that former Jets signal caller — Teddy Bridgewater — and Darnold are on the same roster, at least for now. In need of another answer, any other answer, at quarterback, the Carolina Panthers have turned to Darnold, the 23-year old former third-overall pick who was unable to find success in his three seasons with the Jets.
How Darnold performs in Carolina will call into focus many things, including the talent scouting ability of general manager Scott Fitterer, who has had an eye on Darnold since he was coming out of USC. Darnold's level of success will also showcase offensive coordinator Joe Brady and head coach Matt Rhule's abilities to work with a struggling quarterback coming off his worst season.
The bottom line: Trading a 2021 sixth-round pick and 2022 second- and fourth-round picks for Darnold doesn't answer long-term questions for the Panthers. In fact, more questions than answers emerge.
If it doesn't work out for Carolina — again — this team will not be in much different place than it was this past offseason. And the offseason before that. If it does work, it could become a steal and give the team something to build around.
Quarterback question mark
The Panthers should have known what they were getting in Bridgewater a year ago. His play wasn't that different from his previous seasons in the NFL. The Panthers certainly know what he offers now, and felt that Darnold offered more. A higher upside, certainly.
Darnold is a question mark. He could still be a good quarterback, but has yet to show it in the NFL. Perhaps a change of scenery will do him good.
If he plays well, the deal could turn into a steal, but the possibility remains that we will be here again next year. The Panthers will pick up Darnold's fifth-year option for $18.9 million in 2022, per league sources, which will put him under contract for the next two seasons.
"He's only 23 years old. A lot of these quarterbacks don't mature, hit their prime till like 24, 25, 26. If this is a player that we can hit on at this price, and if he is our quarterback for the future, it's definitely worth the gamble," Fitterer said.
If Darnold doesn't work out, the Panthers will have to reset at the quarterback position sooner rather than later, and they still won't have a long-term answer to build around. If he does fit, the team will have to pay him a lot beginning in 2023, as opposed to the cheaper price for a longer period of time that a rookie presents.
The team either doesn't have a quarterback, or it's stuck debating whether he played well enough to warrant a bigger, long-term deal.
Three consecutive offseasons of searching for an answer at quarterback doesn't help build a successful roster, especially when the team expects to have a better record, and therefore a worse draft pick, in 2022. No top rookie quarterbacks will be available for a cheap price then, either.
From the start of the offseason, the Panthers' level of interest in quarterbacks they believed would be available to them at No. 8 overall, or that were worth trading began to reveal itself.
The first big domino to fall was Matthew Stafford, whom the Detroit Lions traded to the Los Angeles Rams. Carolina was very much in on trying to make a similar trade.
The Panthers then turned a significant portion of the attention to Houston's Deshaun Watson, who had requested a trade from the Texans. Interest in Watson was significant, however recent allegations of sexual assault have made that situation complex. The Texans also offered early resistance to trade talks, and the cost to bring him in to begin with was going to be significant. Is Watson completely off the table? Maybe not, but that wasn't happening any time soon.
Then there's the draft situation.
More than a week ago, the San Francisco 49ers made a trade with the Miami Dolphins to move from the No. 12 pick up to No. 3, ostensibly to pick a quarterback. The cost of moving up to select a top quarterback was high and now the odds of the Panthers selecting one in the draft are reduced. Holding on to picks in the first three rounds this year was important.
Having two young and cheap quarterbacks on the roster wouldn't be the worst thing, but how can you start to build around Darnold in a way the Jets didn't by drafting a quarterback at No. 8?
Signing Bridgewater last season helped the Panthers to be good enough to win a few games, but not bad enough to land the top quarterbacks in this year's draft. It didn't work.
Now, they've opted for Darnold, which gives them a guaranteed new player with potential at quarterback.
The deal started really being finalized at Ohio State's pro day Tuesday when Fitterer and Jets general manager Joe Douglas discussed the situation on the football field while Justin Fields threw in front of them. By then, the teams had collected all the data they needed on the quarterbacks in the draft and other trade targets, and both sides could move forward.
Can Darnold succeed with the Panthers?
The ramifications of the Panthers' on-field product this season is one of the more interesting aspects of this situation. The team is taking a chance on a player who's been among the worst starting quarterbacks in the NFL, especially last season.
But, who is to blame for Darnold's performance? Is it bad coaching under former Jets head coach Adam Gase? A lack of weapons to connect with? The pressure of playing in a big city like New York? Just the low quality of the team around him in general?
The bigger question, then, is whether Brady and Rhule can help Darnold return to being the quarterback he was at USC, with the success that led to him to being the third overall pick in the 2018 NFL draft.
"I think he moves well in the pocket. He's not a runner, like you would picture, but he's a person that can slide and climb in the pocket," Fitterer said. "I think he sees the field, he can push the ball downfield. When he does take off, he does have speed as a runner. I think he can make throws at all levels, I've seen that going back to college. You can see glimpses of that in the NFL," Fitterer said.
"I think in our offense, with Joe Brady, with Christian (McCaffrey), with DJ (Moore), with Robby (Anderson), and now Dan Arnold, this receiving tight end, I really like what he can bring to us, and the ability to push the ball downfield, all those things are really exciting."
In 2020, Darnold had his worst statistical season and looked out of sorts at times. He averaged just 184 yards per game, thew 11 interceptions to nine touchdowns and was sacked 35 times, the most of his career despite playing in one fewer game than he had each of the two previous seasons.
A major flaw in Bridgewater's performance last year was end-of-game situations. He bore some of the blame for the team's 0-8 record in games with the ball in his hands and a chance to win or tie.
Darnold hasn't fared much better. In his career, Darnold has completed 52.2% of his passes in fourth-quarter situations within one score, and he's thrown two touchdowns to six interceptions.
He will have the opportunity to get the ball out more quickly in Brady's offense and move around, which may benefit him. Similar to the Jets, however, the Panthers' offensive line is a major work in progress, which is part of what made the early draft picks this year so valuable.
Maybe this will be the change of scenery he needs.
But if Darnold continues to perform as he has thus far in his NFL career, this trade will be the latest in a series of moving pieces at quarterback for the Panthers.