Despite what happened Sunday, the Carolina Panthers have been one of the biggest surprises in the first quarter of the 2021 NFL season. They jumped out to a 3-0 record and just suffered their first loss of the year courtesy of Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys. This past offseason, the Panthers traded for Sam Darnold, whom the New York Jets selected third overall back in the 2018 NFL Draft.
With the new regime led by Robert Saleh, New York put an end to the Darnold era selected Zach Wilson second overall in the 2021 draft, pegging him as the future of the Jets franchise. However, Darnold has gotten off to a blistering start in 2021, and his early success in Carolina proves that the Jets were the problem, not him.
The Jets are still struggling, even without Sam Darnold
The Jets have been a major disappointment to begin the season. Of course, they weren’t expected to be a playoff team, but Wilson and company have struggled to find any sort of rhythm on offense, even with the huge addition of wide receiver Corey Davis.
Wilson’s NFL career has not gotten off to the start he (and Jets fans) was hoping for. He has just four touchdown passes and eight interceptions through his first four NFL games, including a disastrous four-interception performance against the New England Patriots in Week 2.
Wilson did have a nice game on Sunday against the Tennessee Titans, going 21-for-34 for 297 yards with two touchdowns and an interception as they earned their first win of the year, 27-24.
Of course, Wilson can give a big thanks to Tennessee kicker Randy Bullock, who missed a field goal at the end of overtime to give New York the victory. The Titans were also without both A.J. Brown and Julio Jones, but any victory is a good one, especially for the young Jets team.
Darnold is on a roll and leads the NFL in rushing touchdowns
Yes, Darnold really leads the entire NFL in rushing touchdowns at this point with five rushing scores through four games. He put up just five total over three seasons with the Jets. Perhaps even more surprising is that Sunday’s game against the Cowboys marked his second consecutive game with a pair of rushing scores.
Darnold is getting it done through the air as well, and the injury to Christian McCaffrey will more than likely force the Panthers to lean more heavily on the passing game until their superstar running back returns. Through four games, the former USC star has completed 67.8% of his passes for 1,189 yards with five touchdowns and three interceptions.
Sure, Darnold and the Panthers couldn’t beat the Cowboys on Sunday, but a 3-1 start to the year and the overall performance from Darnold has been a huge surprise. This was Darnold’s roughest outing in 2021, but the Cowboys are the favorites to walk away from the NFC East with the division crown, so certainly nothing to be discouraged about in Carolina.
Even with the loss, Darnold finished went 26-for-39 with 301 yards and two scores through the air but did throw two interceptions. But both were to Trevon Diggs, who now leads the league in that category with five and was recently named NFC Defensive Player of the Month. Darnold added six carries for 35 yards and the pair of rushing scores as they fell to the Cowboys 36-28 despite a late fourth-quarter rally.
The Panthers are a playoff team in the NFC thanks largely to the emergence of Sam Darnold
Who had Carolina as one of the best teams to start the 2021 season? Likely not many, right?
But Darnold’s emergence has Matt Rhule’s team as a playoff contender. It is still early, but so far, they have looked more than worthy of a playoff spot, especially with the way everything else is unfolding in the NFC South, with the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons having their fair shares of early-season struggles.
If Darnold can keep playing at this rate, even without McCaffrey, things could work out really well for Carolina as the season progresses. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are still the favorites in the division (and should be), but a Wild Card spot certainly isn’t out of the realm of possibility for the Panthers.
The Panthers face the Philadelphia Eagles, Minnesota Vikings, New York Giants, and then the Falcons over the next four weeks, and those are four very winnable games for Darnold and company.
Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference