Sam Darnold starting to find himself in Carolina Panthers' offense

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Carolina Panthers coach Matt Rhule has insisted since the beginning of training camp that quarterback Sam Darnold doesn’t have to focus on being a leader, only on “playing quarterback.’’

In other words, Rhule wants Darnold to focus on getting the ball into the hands of his playmakers and not try to do too much, as he often did with the New York Jets the past three seasons.

Mission accomplished in Friday night’s preseason finale, a 34-9 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Granted, Darnold worked against Pittsburgh’s second- and third-stringers in the first half before giving way to backup P.J. Walker. But in his only extensive playing time of the preseason -- he played one short series in the second game -- Darnold looked like a focused quarterback.

He wasn’t dynamic.

He wasn’t great.

He was efficient.

“He’s like a more mature player,’’ said wide receiver Robby Anderson, who played with Darnold for two seasons (2018-19) with the Jets. “He just seems more comfortable out there.’’

Darnold completed 19 of 25 pass attempts for 162 yards and two touchdowns. He was at his best on the final drive of the half, completing 7 of 8 attempts for 58 yards, including an 8-yard, back-shoulder touchdown to Anderson.

“Heck of a ball to Robby," Rhule said.

To put that half into perspective, in three seasons (2018-20) and 38 starts for the Jets, Darnold had only three halves in which he passed for 150 yards and two touchdowns, according to ESPN Stats and Information.

For more perspective, he led a 12-play, 84-yard scoring drive at the end of the first half – in his three seasons with the Jets, he led a scoring drive of at least that distance only twice.

This won’t make him a candidate for NFL MVP.

However, it was a step in the right direction of rebuilding the third pick of the 2018 draft, who had 39 interceptions to only 45 touchdowns in New York.

On Friday, he was a game manager, not a game disrupter.

“For me it’s really just learning from last year and understanding when to get the ball out,’’ said Darnold, who didn’t have star running back Christian McCaffrey last night. “The biggest thing is finding completions when the defense does a good job of covering guys.’’

Darnold’s 76% completion percentage on Friday by far exceeded the career 59.8% percentage he had with the Jets. He did it by dinking and dunking the ball underneath, mostly to wide-open receivers.

According to NFL Next Gen Stats, only one of his 25 attempts was thrown into a tight window.

Darnold did most of his damage between zero and nine yards, completing 12 of 15 attempts for 107 yards. He didn’t have a pass travel more than 20 yards. Rookie wide receiver Terrace Marshall Jr. caught his 13-yard touchdown around the line of scrimmage.

The average distance of Darnold’s passes Friday was 4.6 yards, according to Next Gen Stats. For perspective, Alex Smith finished last in the NFL last season with an average distance of 5.0 yards.

Last season, Darnold averaged 7.5 yards downfield to rank 21st out of 35 qualified quarterbacks.

Most importantly, Darnold didn’t have an interception or a fumble, though he came close to having one of each.

“Like everybody -- some good, some bad," Rhule said of Darnold's performance. “Overall, good effort."

For most of the half, Darnold had solid protection from Carolina’s rebuilt offensive line. Again, that wasn’t against Pittsburgh’s starters, who had an NFL-best 56 sacks last season, including 15 by outside linebacker T.J. Watt.

So the line, as Rhule recently said, continues to be a work in progress.

But Darnold was good enough that most of the focus turned to the kicking job that heated up this week when the Panthers first brought in Dominik Eberle and then traded with the New York Giants for Ryan Santoso to compete with Joey Slye.

Slye missed his only field goal attempt, a 49-yarder, and kicked one extra point. Santoso converted a 52-yard field goal, which ricocheted through off the right upright, and was 3-for-3 on extra points.

So the job appears to be Santoso's.

Darnold was declared the starting quarterback from the day he was traded to Carolina. He’s starting to look like one.

His leadership qualities are starting to show as well.

“He’s not going to be the rah-rah speech guy," Rhule said. “But he is a guy who is going to demand accountability from guys. Guys play for him because he doesn’t make excuses."