The world’s unhappiest marriage is finally over. The big Jets divorce that started with Adam Gase’s firing has ended with Sam Darnold packing his bags for Carolina, an ideal landing spot with a heftier than expected price tag. Carolina is sending a 2021 sixth-rounder in addition to 2022 second- and fourth-rounders New York’s way. The devil is in those details — the league regards future draft picks as far less valuable — but this isn’t a giveaway by the Jets. It’s a commitment from the Panthers, one they were maybe spooked into making after putting too many eggs into the Deshaun Watson basket.
They are apparently so serious about Darnold that they made the largely ceremonial but hardly without risk gesture of exercising Darnold’s fifth-year team option for 2022. It’s guaranteed for injury only, but if a player who has never appeared in more than 13 games can’t pass a physical next spring, the Panthers will be on the hook for roughly $20 million.
It’s a big bet that OC Joe Brady is just the man to revive Darnold’s career, and it’s hard to disagree. If you were considering the offensive minds most likely to jump start a failed 23-year-old former first-rounder, Brady would be on the very short list. “Very short” could be the amount of time Brady has left in Carolina, as he is a head-coaching job waiting to happen. That makes 2021 an all-or-nothing proposition with regards to Darnold’s future.
The Darnold we got in 2020 was a weapons-less disaster who produced more picks than passing scores for the league’s worst coaching staff. Those two biggest problems are fixed right off the bat in Carolina. Brady schemed career years for essentially all of his skill players last season, but he couldn’t have done it without their skill. D.J. Moore and Robby Anderson are an excellent receiver tandem, and they will be re-joined by Christian McCaffrey in 2021.
Darnold, of course, has experience with Anderson, a player he would gel with every December when the Jets finally decided the wideout should be a featured part of the offense. Whereas Darnold has played with Anderson before, he has never had a talent like Moore or McCaffrey at his disposal. CMC is the most dangerous running back in football. Moore makes Jamison Crowder look like a Patriots special teamer. This skill position supporting cast isn’t just better on the whole than the one Darnold leaves behind in New York, it’s an upgrade at every position.
Which brings us to the biggest question: Is Darnold better than Teddy Bridgewater? By any objective measure, the answer is no. But Darnold has something Bridgewater doesn’t: Untapped ceiling. Bridgewater is hard capped. Even amongst last year’s avalanche of career campaigns, Bridgewater still managed only 15 passing touchdowns. He has taken this roster as far as he can, and it was 5-11.
A natural-born gunslinger before he started seeing ghosts, there’s a play-maker somewhere inside Darnold waiting to be unleashed. There’s also a sloppy, Winston-ian mistake maker who needs to be reined in. That’s the needle Brady has to thread. It is usually a losing battle. Darnold is a heat check moment for an assistant on a rocket ship to a top job. Darnold could just as easily be Brady’s first setback instead of crowning achievement. It was simply time to try something new after Bridgewater proved there was no higher gear for him to shift into.
The same could be true for Darnold. Darnold is more reckless than aggressive down the field. As a result, he wasn’t asked to throw there very often in 2020, with his 38 attempts of 20-plus yards registering just 26th. Next Gen Stats charted Darnold’s average depth of target as merely .5 higher than Bridgewater’s, with his 7.8 mark checking in 26th amongst qualifying quarterbacks. No. 1 in that department? Joe Flacco, who was playing in the same dismal Jets Offense as Darnold. Gase trusted broken-down Flacco to chuck it deep but not Darnold. That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement for the kid’s future.
And if Darnold isn’t going to be excellent deep, where does he better Bridgewater? Darnold butters his bread at the intermediate levels of the field, an area Bridgewater had already firmly mastered. This is a hope and maybe a prayer from a front office that presents itself as one of the league’s most analytically minded. If it pays off, it will be about Darnold’s underlying talent as opposed to any underlying metrics. The latter never identified a good football player in New York. It’s a risky bet to make, but one that can be forgiven after Bridgewater turned Moore, Anderson and Curtis Samuel into only 15 scores.