Carolina Panthers should consider message if they pursue Deshaun Watson

Carolina Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold was benched Sunday, as the Panthers (3-4) lost their fourth straight game. Al Bello/Getty Images

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The question isn’t: Will the Carolina Panthers again pursue Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson after another failed performance by Sam Darnold on Sunday, this time at MetLife Stadium, where Darnold spent his first three seasons with the New York Jets?

The question is: Should they pursue Watson, a player who is facing 22 active lawsuits alleging sexual assault and inappropriate behavior?

It was less than four years ago that David Tepper, after being unanimously approved as the new owner of the Panthers, talked about changing the culture of an organization he purchased from Jerry Richardson.

The NFL fined Richardson $2.75 million after its investigation into alleged workplace misconduct, including sexual harassment and the use of a racial slur toward a team scout.

“I’ve had a business for 25 years,’’ Tepper said. “I’m a person that believes in equality for everybody, including men and women. ... Anything that comes out of this [NFL Richardson investigation] is the past. The past is the past.’’

Pursuing Watson, as the Panthers did before the league began looking into accusations against the former Clemson star, brings the past to the present. It brings with it something else Tepper said on May 22, 2018, the day his purchase of the team became official.

“The first thing I care about is winning,’’ Tepper said. “The second thing I care about is winning. The third thing I care about is?’’

The Panthers haven’t been winning since Tepper paid an NFL-record $2.275 billion for the franchise. Carolina is a collective 20-35, and 3-4 this season after losing its fourth consecutive game, 25-3 to the New York Giants (2-5).

Darnold was so bad that coach Matt Rhule benched him early in the fourth quarter. For the game, Darnold was 16-of-25 for 111 yards, no touchdowns and one interception, and his 10.7 Total QBR ranks 21st of 24 quarterbacks in Week 7.

He’s been bad the past four games without star running back Christian McCaffrey (hamstring), throwing seven interceptions and compiling a 28.4 Total QBR that ranks 32nd among 33 qualifying quarterbacks during that span, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Only Chicago Bears rookie Justin Fields is worse.

This came after compiling a 63.6 QBR the first three games with McCaffrey, which ranked seventh.

Because of Darnold’s recent play, Rhule was questioned after Sunday's game about whether this changed the team’s approach to the trade deadline on Nov. 2.

In other words: Are the Panthers interested now in pursuing Watson?

Rhule downplayed that, saying “I can’t look into the future, but I don’t believe it will.’’

But what was most concerning about Darnold’s latest blunder was his demeanor after being benched.

Rhule said he wanted the loss to “infuriate and upset us.’’

Darnold didn’t appear to be either infuriated or upset.

Darnold wouldn’t even admit to being embarrassed by the decision to bench him.

“When you get to that point, getting pulled, I just internalize it,’’ he said. “Honestly, it’s more of those situations where it is what it is.’’

That may be part Darnold’s problems. He should have been embarrassed and said so. He should have been fiery mad at himself for playing so poorly he had to be benched. He should have had steam coming off his forehead instead of a numbing, nonchalant stream of quotes about the lack of execution from everybody.

He should have been like defensive end Brian Burns, worried that the Panthers are headed for a fourth straight losing season.

“We need to fix it now before it gets scary,’’ Burns said. “It’s scary now, to be honest.’’

Darnold should be scared for his football future.

He failed with the Jets, going 13-25 in his first three seasons after being the third pick of the 2018 draft. Now he’s failing with the Panthers.

When asked if this simply was a slump, Darnold said, “That’s a good word for it.’’

If that’s the case, Darnold has been in a slump almost his entire NFL career. You can blame the Jets for not surrounding him with enough talent. You can blame what’s happened at Carolina in part to being without McCaffrey and with an offensive line plagued by injuries.

But Giants quarterback Daniel Jones didn’t have franchise running back Saquon Barkley and most of his starting receivers, and yet he found a way to make plays. He even made an outstanding one-handed catch on a flea-flicker.

Darnold, who had his top two receivers, found ways to make plays that hurt the Panthers. He had an intentional grounding in the end zone that became a safety. He had an interception near the goal line that wasn’t close to his receiver.

He missed other open receivers, as well.

Rhule tried to sugarcoat it by saying the team’s performance was “unacceptable for all of us.’’ He followed that by saying, “I don’t want to call any one guy out.’’

But he did call out Darnold -- during the game.

He benched him in favor of P.J. Walker, an undrafted player who made a brief name for himself in the XFL before reuniting with his former Temple coach at Carolina last season.

And all Darnold said about that was, “It is what it is.’’

So despite Rhule saying Darnold will be his starter this week against Atlanta and moving forward, things could change.

Don’t forget, in February of 2020, Rhule said he “really wanted’’ Cam Newton to be a part of his first team. A month later, Newton was released and the Panthers signed Teddy Bridgewater to replace him.

Whether Watson will be involved remains to be seen. League sources told ESPN.com the Panthers wouldn’t mortgage the future and give up the three first-round draft picks the Texans reportedly want for Watson.

But sources told ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler the Panthers indeed are looking at their options for Watson.

The Panthers already have picked up Darnold’s fifth-year option that guarantees him $18.8 million in 2022, so that has to be considered too. Watson's base salary is $10.5 million in 2021, but it jumps to $35 million in 2022, per Spotrac.

Rhule later admitted Sunday he didn’t want to say anything was on the table or off the table.

“We’ll see who responds,’’ Rhule said. “Let’s find out who’s got that edge. We want to become a really, really tough franchise. A tough building, and I have not gotten that done. When things like this happen it’s right on my shoulder. I have not gotten that done.

“If we don’t become a tough team soon we’re going to have to make some serious changes.’’