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Sam Darnold wasn’t perfect, but he was plenty good enough in first game as a Panther

Carolina Panther quarterback Sam Darnold celebrates a touchdown against the New York Jets in the Panthers’ 19-14 win Sunday.

Carolina Panther quarterback Sam Darnold celebrates a touchdown against the New York Jets in the Panthers’ 19-14 win Sunday.

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Sam Darnold’s debut for Carolina wasn’t everything you would want, but it was more than enough to lead the team to his first win as a Panther in the first game of 2021.

Playing the team that gave up on him after three years and traded him to Carolina, Darnold threw for 279 yards and accounted for two TDs against the New York Jets in Carolina’s 19-14 season-opening victory. He then steadfastly refused to talk about any “vengeance is mine” themes afterward, sticking instead to the script, just like he did on a sunny Sunday afternoon in which Carolina never trailed.

“He’s a nice guy,” Carolina defensive end Brian Burns said of Darnold. “So it’s not really a vengeance type of thing.”

Still, playing your old team, like seeing your old girlfriend, will stir up a little emotion — even for a laidback Californian like Darnold. He did seem to get the last laugh against the Jets, after all.

“I’m not going to lie, seeing them on the other side — that was a little different,” Darnold said of the Jets. “But you throw that away and you look at the scheme, and our offense vs. their defense, and you kind of forget about it in the middle of the game.”

Darnold looked like a quarterback who can win if he has a good team around him and probably won’t if he doesn’t, which describes the majority of NFL starters.

The Panthers were clearly the better team Sunday, thanks in part to the return of running back Christian McCaffrey (187 total yards) and a devastating pass rush. That sort of clarity won’t be as apparent for most games, and Darnold is eventually going to have to play better. Against most NFL teams, 19 points won’t get it done.

Still, this was a good start, and Darnold allowed himself a few moments of satisfaction. He kept the touchdown ball after he scored his first TD as a Panther on a beautifully executed, 5-yard quarterback draw. He smiled now and again. He celebrated a little with the fans. All of it together was about 1/10th of the celebration Cam Newton would have instituted for a preseason touchdown, but hey, to each his own.

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Carolina Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold rushes for a touchdown during second-quarter action on a quarterback draw. Jeff Siner [email protected]

What we did see from Darnold made it seem that what happened with the Jets in his three years was largely not his fault. Those 279 yards he threw for in this opening game of 2021 represented more yards than he threw for during any single game in 2020, when he was the primary QB for a horrible Jets team that finished 2-14.

The Jets are still horrible. This one should have had a final score of about 30-14 and shouldn’t have come down to Carolina having to make sure the Jets didn’t recover an onside kick with 1:56 left. But Carolina got inside the 10-yard line four times and only got 13 points out of that, with one TD and two short field goals.

Darnold’s fourth-down fumble on an attempted handoff to McCaffrey — he and fullback Giovanni Ricci managed to collide and lose the ball before McCaffrey ever got to it — was his one glaring mistake. Without the fumble, Panthers coach Matt Rhule said later, McCaffrey could have “walked” in for a touchdown.

“I feel like we didn’t execute as well as we wanted to,” Darnold said, “especially when we got into the red zone.”

Darnold nevertheless threw for 234 yards in the first half, and the way he slid left in the pocket and found Robby Anderson all alone for a 57-yard TD in the second quarter was a thing of beauty.

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Carolina Panthers wide receiver Robby Anderson runs through the end zone like an airplane after catching a deep touchdown pass against the New York Jets during second-quarter action. The Panthers defeated the Jets 19-14. Jeff Siner [email protected]

It was Anderson, also a former Jet, who made the most overt reference to his former employer, doing a Jet imitation after the touchdown by running around with his arms outstretched. He admitted later he was glad to stick it to the Jets with that TD and had planned that celebration earlier in the week, telling fellow receiver DJ Moore about it. Not if he scored, but when.

“Speak it into existence, you feel me?” Anderson said.

Darnold said later he didn’t even see what Anderson did after the game’s biggest play. The quarterback steers as far away from controversy as possible. The fact that he’s now fully vaccinated (at one time he had a case of vaccine hesitancy) has now thankfully made that a non-issue.

What if Darnold and rookie Jets quarterback Zach Wilson had traded places Sunday?

Then I believe the Panthers would have won with Wilson, and Darnold would have lost. The poor rookie from BYU was running for his life for much of the afternoon. Wilson got sacked six times and avoided several more. Panthers coach Matt Rhule said he was pleasantly surprised Wilson got up at all after Derrick Brown, Carolina’s 320-pound defensive tackle, fell on him.

“We left some sacks out there, honestly,” Burns said. “Yeah, we ended with six, but we could have easily had about nine if we would have finished how we should have finished.”

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Carolina Panthers cornerback Donte Jackson celebrates during the team’s 19-14 victory over the New York Jets Sunday. Jeff Siner [email protected]

That was Darnold’s fate last year. This time he was only sacked once, although he did have to throw under pressure numerous times as the Panthers’ pass protection looked iffy. The New Orleans Saints will be a tougher matchup next Sunday and the Panthers will need to “clean some things up,” as Darnold said.

Still, as Rhule said: “I thought Sam played excellent. He hung in the pocket. Made some third-down throws.”

It wasn’t all you’d want. But, for Sunday, it was enough.

Sports columnist Scott Fowler has written for The Charlotte Observer since 1994. He has authored or co-authored eight books, including four about the Carolina Panthers. Fowler has won the Thomas Wolfe award for outstanding newspaper writing and has earned 15 national APSE awards. He also hosted The Observer’s 8-part podcast “Carruth,” which Sports Illustrated named 2018’s “Podcast of the Year.”
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