Can Panthers' Sam Darnold, Robby Anderson recreate chemistry found with Jets

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The Carolina Panthers were in the final quarter of a Week 3 road win against the Houston Texans when ESPN’s Mike Clay tweeted, “[Sam] Darnold won’t throw to Robby Anderson because he reminds him of the Jets.’’

It was a funny line that others piled onto.

It’s not so funny anymore -- at least not to Anderson and the 3-2 Panthers.

A big reason Anderson signed a two-year, $29 million extension in August was because of the chemistry he and Darnold had in New York for two years (2018-19). There was a comfort level and trust that made Anderson believe he could improve on the career season he had with Teddy Bridgewater a year ago.

That hasn’t happened.

Anderson enters Sunday’s game against the Minnesota Vikings (1 p.m. ET, Fox) with 12 catches on 29 targets for 179 yards and one touchdown. He is tied for 119th in the NFL in receptions and tied for 53rd in targets.

After five games last season, Anderson had 36 catches on 46 targets for 489 yards and one touchdown. He ranked among the top receivers in the NFL.

Anderson’s frustration reached a boiling point late in Sunday’s 21-18 loss to Philadelphia when defensive back Steven Nelson picked off a sideline pass in front of him.

An animated Anderson went to the sideline and yelled at receivers coach Frisman Jackson. He wanted to run a “double move, stutter and go,’’ understanding the defensive back that had been sitting on his routes most of the day.

He called the outburst “passion.’’

“Somewhat frustrated too,’’ Anderson said on Wednesday. “I felt like if I had the opportunity, I could have made a difference in us winning the game. That’s my biggest concern, winning.’’

The frustration is warranted. The chemistry Anderson had with Darnold in New York hasn’t carried over to Carolina.

“It just hasn’t,’’ coach Matt Rhule said. “Why? I’m working hard to try to figure out the why, trying to create those opportunities. Robby is a good player. He needs to be more involved.’’

A look at the why

Anderson lack of involvement is one of the biggest mysteries of the season. His catch rate of 41.4% is a significant drop-off from his 68.5% last season, when he finished with a career-best 95 catches on 136 targets for 1,096 yards and three touchdowns.

Clay says Anderson appears to be the third option on most plays, based off of the depth of his routes (15.3 yards, up from 9.4 yards last season) and number of targets.

“I’m not too much in control of that,’’ Anderson said. “I’ve got to do what’s told of me to do.’’

But, he admitted, “My role has shifted a little bit.’’

For one, DJ Moore is getting more of the shorter routes, which may explain why he’s getting 29% of the targets compared to 17% for Anderson. Last season, Anderson got 27% compared to 22% for Moore.

The Panthers are trying to fix things. Anderson has been targeted 18 times the past two weeks after tallying 11 targets the first three weeks, which prompted Clay’s tweet.

In a film study of all 29 of Anderson’s targets, with help from ESPN Stats & Information and NFL Next Gen Stats, these things stood out:

  • Eight of Darnold’s 28 off-target throws have been to Anderson, including five on his first nine.

  • Anderson has been open on 31 of 35 routes where he wasn’t targeted. This is defined by NFL Next Gen Stats as 3-5 yards of separation.

  • Anderson has faced man-to-man coverage on 94 routes, compared to 70 during the same span last season. Darnold has a 47.9 Total QBR versus man coverage, ranking 24th of 32 qualified quarterbacks.

  • Anderson excelled in 2020 on crossing routes, which accounted for 13.7% of his plays. That number has dropped to 6.9% in 2021. It was 13% with Darnold in New York.

  • Anderson’s tight-window targets have risen from 15.4% to 20.7%, but his receiving percentage has dropped from 28% to 12.5%. His open-target percentage has dropped from 23.5% to 13.8%, and his wide-open target percentage has dropped from 17.6% to 6.9%.

‘Got to make those plays’

The most critical play of Sunday’s loss was a third-and-3 pass to Anderson that came the play before Philadelphia blocked a punt to set up the winning touchdown. Rhule called it a “bad ball’’ after the game.

On Monday, after seeing on film that the outstretched Anderson got both hands on the ball, Rhule changed his tune.

“Robby knows I love him,’’ said Rhule, who coached Anderson at Temple in 2013 and 2015. “He’s got to go make those plays.’’

Anderson disagreed.

“I feel I did all I could to try to pull that catch in,’’ he said.

Both agree Anderson needs to be more involved. But making that happen won’t be as easy as designing more plays for him, considering Moore is having a career season, ranking fourth in the NFL in receptions (35) and seventh in targets (50).

Then there’s the possible return Sunday of running back Christian McCaffrey after missing the past two games because of a hamstring injury. He had 16 catches on 17 targets for 163 yards before the injury, so he’ll suck up some targets.

Darnold has a plethora of talented targets, something he didn’t have with the Jets. Former Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme said the last thing Darnold needs to do is force the ball to Anderson.

“You can’t get away from the reads,’’ he said. “Forcing it usually is not a good thing.’’

Darnold agreed.

“For me, I’m just going to continue to do my job, go through my reads and whoever gets the ball, gets the ball,’’ he said.

Anderson understands.

“It’s not about me,’’ he said. “I don’t want to make this about what teams are doing to me. We lost two games. That’s the focus.’’

Rhule’s focus is shoring up the offensive line, which has allowed Darnold to be sacked 14 times, a rate of 2.8 per game -- higher than the 2.57 average he had with the Jets.

Rhule also said offensive coordinator Joe Brady needs to take more deep shots, though that is related to confidence in the protection.

Fixing those things will help the chemistry between Darnold and Anderson -- and stop jokes on Twitter.

“A lot of times people get extensions and get their money, and they step back and collect their checks,’’ Anderson said. “That’s not the case with me. I’m here to be great. My mindset is I still got a lot to prove, and I want to win.’’