Sam Darnold started the season as the Panthers starting quarterback with an impressive stretch that left the team 3-0 and full of optimism. The hope is, as a disappointing season winds down, that Darnold takes Carolina right back there.
While Cam Newton will start today against the Buccaneers, Darnold is expected to enter the game within a few series and, based on how he does, could play a substantial amount, sources say. Playing time will be determined based on the success Darnold is having, but don't be surprised if he cements himself as the starter over the final two games.
Darnold was placed on injured reserve in early November with an incomplete fracture of his right throwing shoulder that was slated to have a recovery time of 4-6 weeks. Activated off IR this week, he'll play today versus Tampa Bay
Essentially, how much Darnold plays will be based on the in-game feel from head coach Matt Rhule, who said this week, "We brought him here to be a starter. We want to see if he can play at that level again.''
Darnold had a good week of practice, a source said, throwing the ball well and showing good huddle command and communication. He's also handled the game plan well. While nothing matters much until Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles uncorks the first blitz, he does seem to have renewed confidence, according to those who have watched him.
Darnold is expected to be on Carolina's roster for 2022, in part because of the nearly $19 million fifth-year option that's fully guaranteed, which was picked up after the Panthers acquired him from the Jets this offseason. But if he can use the next three games to re-establish himself as the starter, that's the best news for everyone.
While Newton's energy has been tremendous since his return to the franchise, he's been up-and-down on the field. Just watching the 32-year-old, he appears to struggle at getting the ball downfield. Newton can still be effective in short-yardage and goal-line situations, and he can still do it with the read-option game. But it seems Darnold presents the entire package.
Darnold had a stellar first three games, eclipsing a 95 passer rating in all three starts while completing at least 67% of his passes and having a 3-to-1 TD-INT ratio. Then he hit a rut, while also injuring his shoulder. That led to the signing of Newton.
Now, if all goes well, it appears Newton will be taking a step back in favor of Darnold.
"Early on in the season I thought we were an excellent passing team," Rhule said this week. "I'd like to see us get back to that."