O-line making it tough for Carolina Panthers to evaluate Sam Darnold, QB position

The New Orleans Saints sacked Carolina Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold (14) seven times Sunday. Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Following Sunday’s 18-10 loss to the New Orleans Saints, Carolina Panthers guard John Miller got a verbal taste of what Sam Darnold and the other Panthers quarterbacks go through physically on a weekly basis.

He was hit.

And then hit again.

And then hit again.

He was hit with question after question about the offensive line’s inability to protect the quarterback after it gave up seven sacks for the second straight week and 44 since a 3-0 start, the second most in the NFL behind the Baltimore Ravens during that span.

When asked if the lack of protection was making it tough for coach Matt Rhule and the staff to evaluate the quarterbacks, Miller finally had had enough.

“Next question,’’ he deadpanned.

If only Darnold could have brushed aside Saints defenders as easily. He might have stood a chance on a day when he completed his first nine pass attempts and led Carolina to 10 points on the first two drives before ending with eight straight drives that produced no points, two turnovers and a missed field goal.

That six of the seven sacks, not to mention the constant duress that didn’t result in a sack, occurred on those drives was no coincidence.

“For us to truly see whether it’s Sam or Cam [Newton] or anyone else, we have to just have a little more consistency up front,’’ Rhule said. “There are too many sacks we took.’’

Rhule was hoping to get a clearer picture of what Darnold, 24, could be moving forward. He started him over the 32-year-old Newton, who was 0-5 as the starter while Darnold was recovering from a shoulder injury.

What Rhule saw was more of what he’s seen during a string of six straight losses and 11 in 13 games.

This isn’t to suggest that if the Panthers invest in a line through free agency and the draft, Darnold can be the quarterback to lead the Panthers (5-11) into the future. It is to suggest that most quarterbacks struggle when under that kind of duress.

Since 2000, among the 34 quarterbacks who have been sacked at least five times in 10 or more starts, the Seattle Seahawks' Russell Wilson (12-11) is the only one with a winning record, per ESPN Stats and Information.

Consider how these other veteran QBs fared in games with at least five sacks: Aaron Rodgers (6-18), Ben Roethlisberger (8-19), Philip Rivers (3-12), Matt Ryan (3-16) and Matthew Stafford (3-16).

Tom Brady didn’t fall into this category, since he’s had only seven games with five-plus sacks. He’s also the exception to the sack rule, going 6-1 in those games.

Darnold also isn’t on this list, because Sunday was the fifth time he’s been sacked five-plus times since the New York Jets made him the third pick of the 2018 draft -- but he is 0-5 in those games, including 0-2 this season with Carolina.

Darnold isn’t without blame. He makes mistakes that can’t be put on the O-line. He didn’t see the Saints safety coming on a blitz on his final possession with the Panthers needing a touchdown and 2-point conversion to tie. Instead of hitting the hot read, he took a sack for a 9-yard loss.

Three plays later, a badly thrown pass to DJ Moore was intercepted.

So when asked about Rhule’s assessment that the protection is not providing ample opportunity for evaluation, Darnold said, “The bottom line is that everyone is not playing good enough.’’

But pressure obviously impacts the evaluation of Darnold. He was sacked 98 times in three years with the Jets and finished with a 13-25 record. During a 2019 Monday Night Football loss to New England, the quarterback was heard saying “I’m seeing ghosts.’’

Darnold is being sacked at a higher rate with the Panthers – 3.3 per game compared to 2.57 with the Jets.

“Our inability to protect the quarterback will certainly show up as one of the main stats,’’ Rhule said.

It showed up in many ways Sunday. Darnold’s 3.5 air yards per attempt was the lowest of his career. Near the end of the third quarter that average was 0.0.

He was forced to get rid of the ball quickly in part to avoid the pressure and in part because receivers didn’t have time to get open.

In many ways, Sunday was a snapshot of Carolina’s season, of Darnold’s career. Early, when the Panthers had a semblance of a running game and Darnold’s timing was sharp, the offense was effective.

When the running game disappeared – 20 yards in the second half – and New Orleans came at Darnold with pressure on 47% of his drop backs, everything fell apart.

That likely won’t change much in the season finale at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who sacked Darnold and Newton a combined seven times in Week 16’s 32-6 victory.

That’ll send Rhule into the offseason scrambling to fix the line and quarterback position -- a tall order for a coach who could be in a make-or-break year. Outside of right tackle Taylor Moton and maybe center Pat Elflein, none of the linemen who started Sunday have jobs that are any safer than Darnold's.

Darnold’s only advantage is that he’s under contract for 2022.

“When you have [12] different offensive line combinations, when you have guys being elevated from the practice squad, when you have guys changing positions, you’re not going to have the unity you want,’’ Rhule said of his offensive line.

“... I do not care who you are playing [at] quarterback, if you do not have a run game or a pretty nice protection game, it is going to be difficult.’’