CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Sam Darnold will play in a meaningful December game for the first time in his NFL career on Sunday when the Carolina Panthers face the Pittsburgh Steelers.
He was 6-8 in December and January games during three seasons with the New York Jets and 0-3 with the Panthers last season. None had playoff implications like they do now with Carolina only a game behind the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC South.
But the No. 3 overall pick of the 2018 NFL draft isn’t approaching Sunday any differently than he is the thick red beard he’s grown during his 2-0 run as the Panthers' starting quarterback under interim coach Steve Wilks.
“It’s a day-to-day process,’’ Darnold said of the beard.
Day-to-day also could describe where Carolina (5-8) is in its search for a franchise quarterback.
Darnold’s mistake-free play (2 TDs, 0 INTs) in two games since returning from injured reserve opens the possibility the Panthers won’t use their first-round pick in the 2023 draft on a quarterback, which seemed like a certainty in October.
They currently have the ninth pick and would fall a lot further from the top quarterback prospects of a strong class if they win their final four games to capture the division title at 9-8.
Just need to get Sam in a Santa hat. https://t.co/TLKTacLtUY— David Newton (@DNewtonespn) December 14, 2022
A 6-0 finish almost certainly would force Carolina to consider re-signing Darnold and focus on developing 2022 third-round pick Matt Corral, who missed this season after suffering a Lisfranc tear in his left foot during training camp.
The team then would be back in the position it’s been in the past three drafts: choosing between strengthening the rest of the roster or taking a quarterback who might be a long-term solution, particularly if they have any doubt Darnold is the answer.
Sunday's opponent, the 5-8 Pittsburgh Steelers (1 p.m. ET, CBS), is one reminder of Carolina’s past philosophy because rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett -- whose status this week is uncertain due to a concussion -- fell to them at No. 20 in April after the Panthers passed on a quarterback and took left tackle Ikem Ekwonu at No. 6.
Then-head coach Matt Rhule and general manger Scott Fitterer were convinced building the rest of the roster around Darnold or Baker Mayfield, acquired in July, was smarter than using a first-round pick on Pickett.
The Panthers haven’t used a first-round pick on a quarterback since they selected Cam Newton first overall in 2011, even after his skills started to deteriorate due to injuries beginning midway through 2018.
Are they in better shape because of this approach? The core has gotten stronger, but record-wise they’ve had three straight five-win seasons and are sitting on five now with four games remaining.
Let’s look at the last three drafts and what could have been:
The quarterback Carolina considered: Justin Herbert, No. 6 to the Los Angeles Chargers
Then-general manager Marty Hurney and Rhule, in his first season as Carolina’s head coach, liked Herbert a lot. There were discussions about trading up for Herbert after Newton missed the final 14 games in 2019 with a foot injury.
The Chargers got Herbert at No. 6. He became a starter in the second game of his rookie season and the next campaign threw for a franchise-record 5,014 yards and 38 touchdowns. Carolina released Newton shortly after Rhule’s arrival in 2020 and went with free-agent acquisition Teddy Bridgewater, who was traded to Denver the next offseason.
Who the Panthers selected: DT Derrick Brown at No. 7
The former Auburn star has emerged in 2022 as an anchor on the defensive front. He already has a career-high 51 tackles and has been nominated by the team for the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award.
The quarterbacks Carolina passed on: Justin Fields, No. 11 to the Chicago Bears; Mac Jones, No. 15 to the New England Patriots
The top three picks in the draft were quarterbacks, Trevor Lawrence No. 1 to the Jacksonville Jaguars, Zach Wilson No. 2 to the Jets and Trey Lance No. 3 to the San Francisco 49ers. But Fields and Jones were considered elite as well. Jones helped New England make the playoffs as a rookie and has the Patriots in contention for a playoff spot this season. Fields has shown flashes of greatness, but his record in two seasons is 5-17. Carolina instead opted to trade for Darnold, who went 4-7 as the starter.
Who the Panthers selected: CB Jaycee Horn at No. 8
The former University of South Carolina star was making an early case for NFL rookie of the year before suffering a season-ending foot injury in the third game. He’s leading the Panthers in interceptions (3) and passes defensed (7) this season, while earning a reputation as a shutdown corner.
The quarterback Carolina passed on: Pickett, No. 20 to the Steelers
He was considered the most NFL-ready option in a weak quarterback class. He’s still far from a finished product. He has only four touchdown passes to eight interceptions and has a 4-5 record. But he led the Steelers to consecutive wins before suffering the concussion and has gone five straight games without an interception.
Who the Panthers selected: OT Ikem Ekwonu, No. 6
He has filled a position that has seen more than a dozen starters since Jordan Gross retired after the 2013 season. Okwonu went from Week 2 until Week 14 without giving up a sack. He anchors one of the NFL’s best rushing attacks over the last seven games with an average of 156 yards per game.
Despite Darnold’s recent play, ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky says it’s way too early for Carolina to ignore the possibility of drafting a quarterback in the first round in 2023.
“Way, way, way, way too early,’’ he said. “You’ve got to see who’s available, how Sam plays, who the next coach is going to be, all that kind of stuff.’’
Darnold hasn’t put up big numbers. He’s completed 25 of 43 pass attempts (58.1%) for 284 yards with two touchdowns and rushed seven times for 33 yards and a touchdown in two games.
He also hasn’t made big mistakes.
“The one important thing that we talked about all the time is not turning the ball over,’’ Wilks has said repeatedly when asked about Darnold’s play.
Darnold spent a lot of time with the defense while on injured reserve to get their perspective on his job. He’s gained confidence and a perspective.
Brown has noticed a different vibe.
“Bearded-face Sam is a lot more chill than regular-face Sam,’’ he said.
Perhaps, but is Darnold good enough for Carolina to put drafting a quarterback in the first round on hold another year?
“While he’s been in awful situations basically everywhere he’s been, his body of work has been less than desired,’’ said Orlovsky of Darnold, who is 19-32 as a starter with 52 interceptions to 56 touchdown passes. “Are the physical abilities there? Absolutely. Has his decision making improved? Absolutely. Does he have mental toughness in his ability to not be broken that is everything in a starter? Absolutely.
“It’s probably inaccurate to say he’s proven he can be [Carolina] or anybody’s guy moving forward.’’