Carolina Panthers will start Sam Darnold at quarterback over Cam Newton vs. Saints

Against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, Darnold will have another chance to show he can be in the first three weeks again.
Published: Dec. 29, 2021 at 9:06 PM EST
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (The Charlotte Observer) - The six weeks Sam Darnold missed earlier this season after he cracked his shoulder blade in Week 9 allowed him to reflect.

He went back and watched film on all of his games — the good and the bad — and found a common theme.

Darnold’s success depends on his footwork in the pocket. When his feet are choppy, like they were in Weeks 4-9 when the Panthers went 1-5, he’s indecisive and makes bad decisions.

When he’s calm in the pocket, like he was when the Panthers started the season 3-0, he can make throws.

Against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, Darnold will have another chance to show he can be in the first three weeks again.

Panthers coach Matt Rhule said Wednesday that Darnold will start in Week 17 against the Saints over quarterback Cam Newton.

The reality for the Panthers is that Newton hasn’t been good in his five starts either, and Darnold is the only quarterback guaranteed to be on the roster next season.

The Panthers picked up the fifth-year option on his rookie contract earlier this offseason and he will make $18.9 million next season.

Newton and backup P.J. Walker, who on Wednesday was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list, are free agents this offseason.

So Sunday’s game is an opportunity for the Panthers to see if Darnold is the quarterback people saw in Weeks 1-3 when he averaged just under 300 yards passing, scored six total touchdowns and turned it over once. Or the one they saw in Weeks 4-9, when he turned it over 11 times and threw for 200 yards only twice.

“To us, we want to go win this football game,” Rhule said. “Sam has been working to get back. We watched him play (the Saints) the first time. He played well in the game. We thought he played well in spot duty last week, so we’re going to give him the opportunity to show what he can do.”

Darnold, who rotated snaps with Newton last week against the Bucs, finished 15-of-32 passing for 190 yards.

A number of fans booed as Darnold entered the game in the second quarter last week. “That’s crazy,” receiver Robby Anderson said Monday of fans booing.

“He’s doing all he can and has done all he can. Obviously, he made mistakes, and we all do, but when he was doing good, two plays later, he made a good play, they’re cheering for him. That’s not real fans.”

Darnold’s first throw was a 63-yard pass to rookie wide receiver Shi Smith, which elicited cheers from fans.

Rhule said he thought Darnold did some good things under pressure and played well despite the boos and the lack of protection from the offensive line.

This week, he wants to see Darnold take a step further.

“I’d like to see him play with progression,” Rhule said. “I’d like to see him play within the system. I’d like to see him be aggressive but not have the catastrophic mistake. The ‘Hey let me turn and throw the ball up in the air and see if something good happens.’

“We want to play a smart football game.” As for Newton, who is 0-5 in five starts for the Panthers this year, he’ll back up Darnold.

Rhule said he wasn’t sure yet whether Newton would play or how much, but added that he’s preparing as if he will. Rhule could use Newton in certain goal-line or third-and-short situations.

While Newton has struggled to make downfield throws, he has been a dangerous runner. He has five rushing touchdowns in six games this season.

The Panthers play the Saints in New Orleans on FOX at 4:25 p.m. Sunday. This will be the second of two games between the two teams.

The Panthers won the first game in Week 2, 26-7.

“For me, it’s just an opportunity to go out there and play good football,” Darnold said.

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