Panthers work on protecting Sam Darnold 'from the feet up'

During his first three NFL seasons, Sam Darnold's completion percentage and interception rate were among the worst in the league. He and the Panthers' staff are working to change that. Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Protection was a major issue for new Carolina Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold during his three seasons with the New York Jets. He was sacked 98 times in 38 games, which contributed greatly to poor decisions and a Total QBR of 44.0, which ranked 35th out of 36 qualified players in that span.

Protection was the name of the game for Darnold on Thursday, as offensive coordinator Joe Brady and quarterbacks coach Sean Ryan talked for the first time about the player acquired two months ago in a trade.

As in don’t say anything negative.

Brady and Ryan avoided, with skilled precision, discussing why Darnold has struggled since entering the NFL as the third pick of the 2018 draft. Every question about the past had the disclaimer they weren’t with the former USC star the past three years.

“All I can judge it off is how everything has been right now," Brady said. “It excites me.’’

But if you read between the lines, there are several things Brady and Ryan are focusing on that contributed to Darnold’s failure with the Jets. They’re encouraging him to be more mobile, not “static" in the pocket, as coach Matt Rhule mentioned from his evaluation of Darnold before the trade.

That doesn’t mean you’ll see Darnold scrambling or running like former Carolina quarterback Cam Newton in his prime. It just means you won’t see him standing in the pocket like a statue.

Technique also is a focus, and it applies to when Darnold is stationary or moving.

“The process would be like any other quarterback I’ve worked with -- you start from the feet up," Ryan said. “When your feet are right, when your lower half is right, there’s a really good chance the balls are going in the right spot."

Darnold was mediocre at best at getting the ball to the right spot with the Jets. His completion percentage of 59.8% since 2018 ranks next to last among qualifiers. He threw 39 interceptions to only 45 touchdowns, giving him an interception rate of 1.03 per game, last among qualifiers.

Many of the drills Darnold has worked on since the start of OTAs were designed specifically to help the quarterback adjust without losing his mechanics. At times you may see Ryan throwing things at Darnold’s feet to try to distract him.

“Sometimes people miss subtle movements, in-the-pocket movements," Ryan said. “To me, less moving parts equals more accuracy. So I think it's a subtle movement up in the pocket, or to the side in the pocket, but I'm still in a great throwing position. And we’ve done a lot of that this offseason."

Ryan and Brady also have put Darnold in as many live-game situations as possible. On Wednesday, they worked on hurry-up drills with crowd noise pumped in, the latter rare in offseason workouts.

While they in essence have started from scratch teaching Darnold a new system, they don’t treat him like a rookie. Both recalled scouting Darnold coming out of college and agree he’s more seasoned than he was at USC.

“What I love is if he makes a mistake one day, the next day he doesn’t make the mistake again, so he’s growing from his experiences," Brady said.

Both also admire Darnold’s work ethic, how he goes straight to the film room to review what he did after a workout. They want his focus in the present, not with what went wrong with the Jets, where he was 13-25 as the starter.

“Just seeing him make reads, just seeing the throws, seeing him play off schedule, seeing him in the pocket identifying protections," Brady said. “It’s not like you’re getting a guy that’s brand new. You’re getting a veteran, a guy that just so happens to be young. That was extremely enticing to us."

Can Brady do for Darnold what he did for Joe Burrow at LSU? Burrow had 16 touchdown passes and five interceptions in 13 games in 2018 before Brady arrived from the New Orleans Saints.

In 2019, he had 60 touchdown passes and just six interceptions, won the Heisman Trophy and was the top pick of the 2020 NFL draft.

“I’m not going to compare," Brady said. “One situation was completely different. All I can say is just being with Coach Ryan and Sam, the work ethic and approach he takes ... he’s doing a great job of showing up with a hard-hat mentality and taking advantage of these days."

Again, protection.