Benching Sam Darnold might be best step in fixing Carolina Panthers' offense

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – It’s time for Carolina Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold to be benched -- permanently.

For the past five weeks, Darnold could fall back on the excuse of not having his security blanket, Christian McCaffrey, when making mistakes that cost Carolina chances to win.

But even with the running back’s return for Sunday’s 24-6 loss to the New England Patriots (5-4), Darnold continued to make the same mistakes that plagued him for three years with the New York Jets and five of the past six games with Carolina (4-5).

He threw three interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown, when he missed a wide-open player. That gives him 10 interceptions in the past six games, five of them losses.

It raises the question: How many chances does one player get?

Coach Matt Rhule, who benched Darnold in the fourth quarter of a 25-3 loss to the New York Giants two weeks ago, said he would have to look at the tape before making “some big statement.’’

“It’s a fair question,’’ Rhule said. “I want to make sure I say that. I don’t want to answer those types of questions in my brain right now coming off the game.

“Obviously, we are all disappointed.’’

Rhule went on to say he was disappointed with other things, such as the 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty when the Panthers were threatening to score in the second half.

But regarding Darnold’s mistakes, he said, “We can’t have the quarterback throwing the ball up in the air. He knows that. I know that. ... We just can’t keep doing this.

“But I need to see everything before I can probably answer that better.’’

Of all the mistakes Darnold has made this season, none was more telling than the one that came with 7:12 left in the third quarter. On a bootleg left on second-and-10 from the New England 20, he had tight end Ian Thomas wide open in front of him.

All he had to do was loft the ball over the defender pressuring him and the Panthers had a chance to cut into a 14-6 deficit.

Instead, Darnold badly overshot Thomas and the ball went into the hands of cornerback J.C. Jackson, who went 88 yards for the touchdown.

Darnold didn’t blame it on the shoulder injury suffered seven days ago that forced him to be limited most of the week in practice. He didn’t have any excuse for it at all and gave the same explanation he’s given repeatedly the past four years.

“I have to stop turning the ball over,’’ Darnold said. “I’m not going to sit here and tell you guys why I should be the quarterback. I believe in myself, and that’s all that matters.’’

Patience, however, appears to be growing thin. Wide receiver Robby Anderson, his favorite target for two seasons (2018-19) in New York, has become his most frustrated target this season.

Anderson had one catch for two yards on three targets a week after having no catches on one target.

And while Anderson said after the game he and Darnold were good, a camera caught him on the sideline telling Darnold he needs to “tighten up a little bit.’’

“The same way if I’m slacking, I need somebody to tell me that,’’ Anderson said. “We hold each other accountable. That’s part of it, part of somebody being your brother, telling them what they don’t want to hear sometimes.’’

The problem is this has become an almost weekly issue for Darnold in Carolina, just as it was a weekly issue when he was with the Jets.

In 46 career games, he now has 47 interceptions to 52 touchdown passes.

The Panthers thought they were headed in the right direction during a 3-0 start. Darnold had three touchdown passes and three rushing touchdowns to one interception.

Since then, he has four touchdown passes and two rushing touchdowns to 10 interceptions. He hasn’t thrown or rushed for a touchdown in three straight games.

When asked what needs to change with an offense that has scored only one touchdown the past three games, Rhule didn’t hesitate.

“All of it,’’ he said. “We have to score. We have to score in the red zone. We have to convert third downs. We have to be able to throw the ball better. We improved the running game I feel like. But the passing game is really not very much there.’’

Benching Darnold should be the first change. The problem is backup P.J. Walker is just as prone to mistakes. In his only start last season, a 20-0 win over Detroit, he had two interceptions in the red zone.

Mistakes are what has kept Walker from being more of a factor in this quarterback battle. They are what prompted Rhule to start Darnold on Sunday after Walker spent most of the week preparing to be the starter.

But Rhule can’t afford to let Darnold keep trying to “play his way out’’ of his poor decision-making as he attempted to do Sunday. He also may not have many options until after the season -- and even then, the Panthers are stuck with Darnold’s fifth-year extension ($18.8 million) the team picked up after trading for him.

“I don’t want to lay things on one person, but we just can’t continue to keep throwing the ball up,’’ Rhule said. “We have to protect the football.’’