Sam Darnold's low-key leadership resonating early with Carolina Panthers

SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- Carolina Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold thinks of leadership as something you do more than something you say. He’s never forced it in a rah-rah way, allowing it to come out so subtly that often only teammates and coaches see it.

Part of it comes from being raised by a father who in college played offensive line -- the grinders of the team who go about their business with little to no fanfare.

Part of it just comes naturally.

So, on Tuesday, it wasn’t that Darnold didn’t comment on whether he’d been vaccinated for COVID-19 (after saying in June he was not vaccinated) that spoke volumes, it was that he wasn’t wearing a mask that mattered.

Under NFL protocols, had Darnold not been vaccinated, he would have been required to wear a mask while doing the group interview in such close proximity to reporters.

Or he could just have turned down the opportunity to do the group interview and avoided the topic completely.

So showing up mask-less made all the statement needed for a team that is among the league leaders with at least an 85 percent vaccination rate, whether Darnold agrees with the NFL protocols that penalize unvaccinated players or not.

He even chuckled when asked if he was treated fairly on social media by those who questioned his leadership when he first admitted to being unvaccinated.

“I mean, it’s everyone’s choice to make whatever decision they want to make,’’ Darnold said in his typical understated, almost monotone voice.

For the record, according to a league source, Darnold has had both COVID-19 shots and will be considered fully vaccinated on Friday, 14 days out from his second shot.

He made the choice to be vaccinated because it was best for the team.

The choices Darnold has made since the Panthers acquired him in an April trade with the Jets have been enough that his leadership has overshadowed the lack of success he's had so far in his NFL career.

“He’s a guy when you walk into the office at 7 in the morning, he’s in there lifting weights, and he’s in there watching tape even on a player’s day off,’’ general manager Scott Fitterer said. “Just through his actions he’s showing a lot of leadership.

Linebacker Shaq Thompson agreed, saying the Panthers “have a good quarterback’’ and that in terms of leadership, Darnold has “everything."

So why did Darnold have a 13-25 record with the Jets after being the No. 3 overall selection in 2018 and have a league-worst quarterback rating last year?

“Because he wasn’t here," Thompson said matter-of-factly, insinuating Darnold has a more stable situation now than he ever had with the Jets in terms of coaching and a supporting cast.

Running back Christian McCaffrey, one of several stabilizing factors in Carolina, went so far as to call Darnold a “great leader.’’

“He knows exactly who he is,’’ said McCaffrey, hoping to return to his 2019 Pro Bowl form after missing 13 games with injuries in 2020. “That's big. I think he knows how to get the best out of everyone around him. His poise, too, is something that’s important at the quarterback position. He doesn't get too high or too low, and that's something we feed off of."

Ultimately, however, Darnold’s leadership will be measured by how he performs and on wins and losses. Being vaccinated gives him the best chance to succeed.

Imagine if he couldn’t eat meals with a teammate, or leave the hotel and interact with people outside the organization while traveling, or have to travel distanced from others on flights, as the league requires unvaccinated players to do.

Or if the Panthers had to forfeit a game because of him.

Darnold understood. He just chose not to parade his decision publicly.

“I weighed my options and made my decision,’’ he said.

Again, it’s the offensive lineman’s mentality. Do what’s best for the team, not the individual. Whether others consider that leadership or not, coach Matt Rhule isn’t concerned.

“He just has to worry about playing football right now,’’ Rhule said of Darnold. “We’ve got great leaders. We’ve got Christian McCaffrey. We’ve got Matt Paradis. ... What I’m really looking for from Sam right now is to be the first guy in the building and the last guy to leave.

“I just want him to absolutely grind and outwork the competition."

Grinding is what Darnold does best. He spent most of the offseason trying to throw less off his back foot, as he often did with the Jets.

The poor habits -- whether they developed because of bad protection or not, Darnold wouldn’t say -- led to a substandard 59.6 completion percentage.

“Going into this training camp, the whole mindset is to just get better every single day,’’ Darnold said. “And that’s where my mind’s at right now.

“I’ve always been confident. I’ve always had confidence in my game and in myself, so that’s never going to change.’’

Neither is Darnold’s propensity to lead by example. That is the one thing that didn’t get lost in his struggles with the Jets.

“Everybody goes about their way differently,” former Jets running back Le’Veon Bell said prior to last season. “But the way he does it, you want to follow him. You want to listen to him and work hard for him."

Unfortunately for Darnold, that wasn’t enough to overcome the lack of talent around him. So now he’s starting over with the Panthers, who are looking for a quarterback to lead them out of three straight losing seasons.

That Darnold showed up for camp on Tuesday without a mask spoke volumes. That he was one of the first on the field for Wednesday’s opening practice and one of the last to leave resonated even louder.

“The more you’re around the great quarterbacks, and the more you know about them, their level of preparation sets the tone way beyond anything else," Rhule said. “Sam looked like a guy that was very, very well prepared today. That to me is how he’s going to lead us.’’