In one of the more intriguing depth chart decisions this late in the season, head coach of the Panthers Matt Rhule has announced that Sam Darnold will start under center for the team’s Week 17 matchup in New Orleans. The intrigue comes from a few places, namely a possible quarterback controversy and the handling of Darnold’s health.
It’s been hard to get a read on what Rhule’s thoughts are on their quarterback room. Longtime Panther Cam Newton was signed to help fill in when Darnold fractured his scapula in a loss to the Patriots and was placed on IR. Newton started 5 of the next 6 games, losing all of his starts and being benched twice for P.J. Walker. Before Newton’s most recent start, Darnold was activated off of IR. Despite Darnold’s activation, Rhule stuck with Newton to start against the Buccaneers. It didn’t take long for Newton to be benched a third time, this time for the newly healthy Darnold. Whether it was skill or health that had Darnold coming off the bench instead of starting is unclear, but 19 minutes into the game, Rhule clearly thought Darnold gave them the best chance at winning.
It certainly wouldn’t be unreasonable for Rhule to be cautious and let Darnold take the rest of the season to heal. After all, last week’s loss to Tampa Bay eliminated the Panthers from playoff contention. To take Darnold immediately from IR and throw him into the line of fire seems like a bit of an unnecessary risk.
Rhule was quoted saying, “Sam has been working hard to get back…We’re going to give him this opportunity to show what he can do.” The stance conveyed in this quote seems to show that Darnold’s grasp on the starting quarterback job in Carolina is tenuous at best. It sounds as if Rhule is giving the former first round pick one more chance over the next two games to convince him that quarterback shouldn’t be a priority for the Panthers this offseason. Road matchups against the Saints and Buccaneers won’t make this an easy task for Darnold.