Panthers QB Sam Darnold returns to practice after ankle injury

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold returned to practice Wednesday for the first time in almost eight weeks sporting a full red beard and a left ankle healed enough to give him another shot at starting in the next couple of weeks.

But whether he gets a second chance to start after losing the job to Baker Mayfield in training camp or remains the backup, Darnold's priority is to help a team that is 1-5 this season and the loser of 12 of the last 13 games find a way to win.

"It's a tough situation that we're all in, you know, losing,'' Darnold said. "I'm not looking forward to whether I'm the backup or whether I'm starting, losing sucks.''

Darnold was designated for return from injured reserve Wednesday, opening a 21-day window to be elevated to the 53-man roster.

He's not expected to be elevated before Sunday's game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-3) unless the Panthers opt to keep three quarterbacks, and that is unlikely. Interim coach Steve Wilks already has named PJ Walker as his starter for the second straight week with Mayfield still out with a high ankle sprain and Jacob Eason as the backup.

Next week at Atlanta or the following week at the Cincinnati Bengals is a more realistic timetable for Darnold to be ready.

But Wilks said Darnold, who ran the scout team Wednesday, looked good and he wanted to see him play in a game this season. This came after Wilks said on Monday Mayfield was not guaranteed the starting job when healthy.

"Whenever I get my opportunity I'll be ready to roll,'' Darnold said. "I'm not too worried about anything else other than that.''

Darnold said he didn't feel any vindication that Carolina struggled under Mayfield, 1-4 as the starter, in much the same way it did last year when he went 4-7 as the starter.

"For me, it's about taking advantage of the opportunity, but also taking it one play at a time,'' he said. "I've said all along, I've said it since my rookie year [with the New York Jets], as a quarterback there's so much going on every single play. You can't look past one play.

"I can't worry about, 'Oh, if I get in there I've got to take advantage of this. Obviously, if that's the case, I'd like to take advantage of the opportunity. But when I'm in there I'm really focused on one play at a time.''

Darnold suffered a high left ankle sprain late in the third quarter of the Aug. 26 preseason finale against the Buffalo Bills after Mayfield won the starting job in what the team called an open competition. He was placed on injured reserve Sept. 1 and missed the first six games during a start that saw the Panthers fire head coach Matt Rhule after Week 5.

Darnold showed good mobility in agility drills during the practice portion open to the media and in running the scout team. Cheering him on was Mayfield, who suffered a left ankle sprain in the Week 5 loss to San Francisco.

Mayfield was not in a walking boot and looked good in agility drills, but appears at least another week from returning to practice, and even then there are no guarantees.

Mayfield compiled a 15.5 Total QBR that was the lowest after five games since ESPN began recording the statistic in 2006. Walker wasn't any better during Sunday's 24-10 loss to the Los Angeles Rams. He had a 5.6 QBR, completing 10 of 16 pass attempts for 60 yards before leaving in the fourth quarter with a neck injury.

Their performance is why some Carolina fans are anxious to see the return of Darnold even though he took much of the blame for last season's 5-12 record, ranking 29th in the league with a 38.8 QBR.

"I'm used to it all,'' Darnold said. "Whatever the fans say, they're going to say. Don't get me wrong. I love the fans. They're what makes this game so great.

"But when things aren't going well people are going to say a lot of different things.''

When Darnold gets his chance fans will notice his beard that caught some of his family off guard last weekend when he visited with them in Los Angeles.

"They were like, 'Oh, what the heck, like looking for me,'" Darnold joked. "I'm like, 'I'm right here."

Running back Christian McCaffrey jokingly said Darnold has to keep the beard.

"I love his beard, yes,'' he said. "The leprechaun vibes. He's got to keep it.''