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Are Panthers better without Sam Darnold?

It has been a turbulent season so far for the Carolina Panthers, and much of the focus has been on the identity of the starting quarterback.

Sam Darnold, freshly signed from the New York Jets, made a strong start, then his performances started to go off the rails. PJ Walker was deputized with only modest success and then, in their latest game, provided a comprehensive win over the Atlanta Falcons. Cam Newton, their former hero, has since took over after re-signing.

The upshot of all that is that the Panthers are 5-5 going into their Week 11 game against Washington, and at this point are almost impossible to predict. The reigning Superbowl champions Tampa Bay are the favorites with and most other sportsbooks, but there is still time for the Panthers to close the gap, and they remain live Wild Card prospects. Victory over Washington would restore their winning record and they are strong favorites with bookies to get that win.

The problem with Darnold

After Cam’s poor 2019 season and perceived decline, the Panthers turned to Teddy Bridgewater for 2020, but moved in a different direction this summer, making a trade to bring in the former Jets starter Darnold, who had been widely praised for some strong performances on a weak team.

Things went well for Darnold from the start. He led the Panthers to victories over the Jets, the New Orleans Saints and the Texans, to give the Panthers a 3-0 record. However, then Darnold’s fortunes changed and the team declined along with him. Five defeats in seven games left the Panthers with a losing record, while Darnold, who had been benched during the fourth of those defeats, developed a likely season-ending injury to his throwing arm that will require surgery to correct.

A string of interceptions were the main lowlights of a terrible run of performances, and while the Panthers defense is solid, they have been put under too much pressure due to the quarterback ceding possession so frequently and wastefully. In theory, Darnold could be back, and there is still more upside than downside for the 24-year-old, but he likely won’t be part of any play-off push this season.

Cam is back

The surprise move for Cam Newton has so far proven to be a master stroke by the Panthers. The former NFL MVP has brought much needed energy to the team and to their football.  

He made a stunning start upon his return for Carolina. On his first snap after taking over from Tucker, he took the ball into the end-zone himself. On his second snap, he pulled off a well-worked touchdown pass to Robby Anderson. That represented a sensational start, and what is all the more remarkable is that he had only had three days to familiarize himself with the playbook.

At the age of 32, given the amount of punishment he has already taken given his playing style, it is not certain how many seasons he has left as a pro. If he can reproduce the level of performance that helped Carolina to four Divisional titles and a Superbowl, he could prove to be a major asset, enabling Darnold to ease into his role over the space of a season or two.

Where do Panthers go from here?

At this point, the identity of the Panthers’ starting quarterback next season is still a mystery. It could be anyone of the three, with PJ Tucker still an important part of the equation.

The Panthers are non-committal about the prospect of making a longer term deal with Cam Newton, and they haven’t given up on Darnold yet. The organization is reportedly pleased with what they saw from him in the first three games of the season and are prepared to excuse some of his subsequent performances given his subsequently diagnosed shoulder problem.

There is also the small matter of the $18.5m that they have to pay to the former Jets play-caller for the 2022 season. There are many reasons, in short, why they are nowhere close to giving up on Darnold yet, but if Newton takes over as starter and has a good season, they will face a dilemma. In the short term, if Newton takes the field against Washington, things may not be as simple as the bookies are predicting. Washington had a nightmare start and realistically are already out of play-off contention, but they sprang a surprise in their last game, beating the Buccaneers 29-19, which means the Panthers cannot afford to take them lightly this weekend

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Priyanka Chaudhary
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