Sam Darnold May Not Ever Live Up to the Hype
Few quarterbacks have come under as much scrutiny in the last decade as Sam Darnold. From his time at USC to being a first-round draft pick by the New York Jets to his new role as the starting quarterback for the Carolina Panthers in 2021, Darnold hasn't exactly held up well under that spotlight.
It hasn't always been his fault. But after getting a fresh start with the Panthers after three seasons with the Jets, Darnold finds himself at a career crossroads. Will he ever put it all together? There are no guarantees.
This is how his life and career got here and what might lay ahead for him.
He Started in Rare Company
Jets fans hoped against hope that Sam Darnold's first pass wouldn't be an indication of his career. It was a cross-field lob that resulted in a pick-six against the Detroit Lions, although the Jets went on to get the win.
Legendarily, Brett Favre’s first toss also went the opposite way for a score. Safe to say that throw didn’t shake Favre's confidence whatsoever, and despite the jarring wake-up call to life in the NFL, he went on to have one of the greatest careers and demonstrations of individual will in history.
Darnold also wasn't the only quarterback in recent memory to see his first pass go the other way for a touchdown. Jameis Winston also had the honor with Tampa Bay. Neither are close to the same league as Favre at this point.
Breaking Ground With the Jets
With his start against the Lions, Darnold became the youngest quarterback to ever take a snap for the Jets franchise. At 21 years, 97 days old, Darnold was by far the youngest to start under center. Joe Namath held the previous record, starting a game at 22 years, 118 days in 1965.
Darnold is not quite the youngest to ever do it. That distinction belongs to former XFL Most Valuable Player Tommy Maddox, who was two-and-a-half weeks younger when he started his first game for the Broncos in 1992.
Darnold is also the fourth-youngest player to play a game in franchise history. He also was the youngest of the crop drafted in 2018 by about four months.
Strong Genes Run in His Family
Darnold did not end up playing for USC by accident. His family has an athletic legacy in Los Angeles.
His grandfather, Dick Hammer, was a world-class athlete at USC. Hammer played basketball for the Trojans and was an Olympic volleyball player. He was also one of the original Marlboro Men.
Darnold's father, Michael, was an offensive lineman at NCAA Division III University of the Redlands and his mother, Chris, played volleyball for Long Beach City College.
Look at a Fellow USC Trojan for a Career Comparison
Most people assume NFL players have been the best or one of the very best on the teams they have played for since they first stepped on a football field. But Darnold started just three seasons of football, total, before he was drafted by the Jets.
He's not the only quarterback to make that kind of leap. Another USC quarterback, Matt Cassel, backed up two Heisman Trophy winners in Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart before achieving NFL success. He made almost $70 million in 14 NFL seasons.
Taking the Road Less Traveled, Beginning at San Clemente High School
The path to many NFL quarterbacks is essentially a straight line, going from four-year high school hero to early college starter to first-round pick. This was not the path for Sam Darnold.
Darnold started out playing linebacker and wide receiver at San Clemente High School. As a sophomore, he subbed in for the quarterback after an injury, threw a touchdown pass and scored the game-winning two-point conversion. He was promptly moved back to wide receiver.
After missing much of his junior season to a foot injury, he excelled at quarterback in his senior year, became a four-star recruit and got a scholarship offer from USC.
Darnold redshirted in 2015, got the nod to start after USC's 1-2 start in 2016 and led them a Rose Bowl win over Penn State, where he set a Rose Bowl record by going 33-of-53 passing for 453 yards and five touchdowns.
Dealing With the Hype After Winning the Rose Bowl
Darnold's Rose Bowl performance as a redshirt freshman brought the kind of hype that goes with preseason Heisman Trophy favorites, but playing an almost new receiving corps in 2017, he matched his interception total front the previous season in the first six games.
Darnold was able to right the ship and lead USC to a Pac-12 championship game win over Stanford and a spot in the Cotton Bowl, where the Trojans lost to Ohio State.
After just one season as USC's full-time starter, he declared himself eligible for the NFL draft in January 2018.
He Was an All-Around Athlete Growing Up With an Athletic Sister
Darnold’s parents wanted him to be well-rounded, so he grew up playing soccer, basketball, baseball, football and even taking taekwondo. While he never really got involved in volleyball like his mom, he would play on the beach with his sister Franki, who played volleyball for the University of Rhode Island.
Darnold’s football career trajectory, especially at quarterback, is astoundingly meteoric, but it’s not terribly surprising. His skills on the baseball field and the basketball court stood out early on. And his reputation for being a Kevin Love-esque full-court passer in basketball was well known.
He was named the South Coast League MVP twice in his high school basketball career and landed on an All-CIF Team for basketball.
Doing Quick Work While Fighting On
Darnold only started 24 games as a Trojan, appearing in 27 total. Despite his less than two seasons worth of starts, he ranks an impressive seventh all-time in passing yards at USC, throwing for 7,229. He trails Matt Barkley, Palmer, Leinart, Cody Kessler, Rob Johnson and Rodney Peete, all of whom played three or more seasons. Darnold's 57 touchdowns rank sixth in school history.
Getting his name among those former USC standouts shows just how much of a sensation Darnold was in his time at USC.
His more than 4,100 yards in his sophomore season are the most ever in a single season for a USC quarterback, and the 31 touchdowns he threw as a freshman rank eighth. Nearly half those scores came in just three games, throwing for five touchdowns apiece against Cal, Arizona and Penn St.
Did the 'Season of Sam' Show Some Media Aspirations?
College football players don’t typically get a lot of free time. From early morning weight training, to afternoon class and practice, not many find time or energy to indulge other interests, and that’s understandable. But Darnold found time to host his own podcast while on campus at USC.
"Season of Sam" chronicled Darnold’s journey throughout his sophomore year in 12 episodes. He was joined weekly by cohost and college football analyst Yogi Roth to share his thoughts on the season and his growth in the position.
They also had guests on for interviews, including notable USC alum Will Ferrell and former USC head coach Pete Carroll.
It Was the Second Coming of Mark Sanchez for the Jets
Jets fans weren't quite ready for another USC quarterback to take charge of their franchise. And it's hard to blame them after what happened with Mark Sanchez.
Sanchez "led" the Jets to a pair of AFC championship game appearances, got paid a king's ransom and finally flamed out in spectacular fashion.
The spotlight at USC is similar to an NFL team in most cities, and that fanbase, which expects greatness, embraced and challenged Darnold right away. Which would ultimately prove to be too much for the young quarterback.
Darnold Entered the League With Expectations and Got Praise for Days
After just his first appearance as the Jets starter, Darnold received quite a bit of praise despite throwing for less than 200 yards, two touchdowns and an interception that was returned for a touchdown.
Instead, it was Darnold's accuracy and poise after throwing that right-off-the-bat interception that stood out. "When I watch him, I see a lot of God-given, instinctual ability that I think is rare," said CBS analyst and former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo.
"There’s a honeymoon period where a team realizes, 'Oh my gosh, we're gonna be good for the next 10 years,'" said Hall of Famer Steve Young.
All of that came after Darnold was called "the most complete QB in the class" ahead of the 2018 NFL draft by ESPN draft expert Todd McShay.
He Comes From a Humble Home
Despite his family’s noted athletic prowess, Darnold grew up in a typical middle-class household. His father, Mike, was a medical gas plumber and his mother, Chris, is a middle school physical education teacher.
His father actually wanted him to be named Buck Darnold, but his mom wasn't having it. "That was not gonna fly," she said.
It's All Love With Josh McCown as a Mentor
The Jets didn't go totally all in on Darnold from the start. They hung on to veteran quarterback Josh McCown to be his mentor.
Having someone like McCown to lean on was arguably better than playing behind a Peyton Manning or Tom Brady, because there wouldn't be a power struggle for the starting position.
A Local Sensation With His Own Bobblehead
In his hometown of San Clemente, Darnold is a hero. A bar in town hosted watch parties for Jets games, and there was even a bobblehead made of Darnold in his San Clemente High uniform.
The bobblehead was the idea of Darnold's high school coach, Jamie Ortiz.
"They did a pretty good job. Coach Ortiz over there at the high school is really into it," Darnold said. "It's really cool to see the kind of buzz that goes around these bobbleheads floating around the whole city of San Clemente … even if the bobblehead's hair is a little better than mine."
Despite his excellence on the field and his self-described quiet confidence, Darnold is notorious for being shy and laid-back off the field. He’s an introvert at heart.
In typical California fashion, he lets things go with the flow. This was evident in a story his former girlfriend Claire Kirksey told about how little he talked when Darnold met her parents.
"They thought they’d scared him, and I'm like, 'No, that's just him,'" she said.
Sam Darnold: Not afraid of NFL defenses but incapable of making simple conversation with his girlfriend's parents.
Keep Your West Coast First Thoughts to Yourself on the East Coast
Darnold didn't do the most basic thing star athletes who are high draft picks should always do when they show up in their new city — adopt the city's other professional sports teams as their own.
When given the softball question of picking a New York baseball team, Darnold's response was a study in how not to do it.
"I'm a Dodgers fan, so it's kinda tough," he said. "But Mets, definitely Mets."
While Darnold actually had Dodgers infielder Justin Turner on his podcast, a more media-friendly answer would've been something like this: "I'm a Dodgers fan at heart, but because they were first in Brooklyn, I'm going to stick with them and say that's still going to be my team."
See how easy that was?
Get That Man His Money
There was actually some debate as to who should be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NFL draft — Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield or Darnold.
While the Cleveland Browns ultimately decided to go with Mayfield, the Heisman Trophy winner, Darnold's solid performance in workouts made him a hot commodity, and the Jets picked him No. 3 overall.
That meant he got super-duper paid to the tune of a four-year, $30.25 million contract that included a $20 million signing bonus and a fifth-year option.
There’s Promise, and There’s 4-12
Darnold was impressive at times during his rookie season with the Jets. He set the record for the youngest quarterback in NFL history to have a passer rating over 110 at 116.8 and set Jets rookie records for highest competition percentage and highest quarterback rating with a minimum of seven appearances.
All that being said, Darnold still turned the ball over and had almost as many interceptions (15) as touchdown passes (17). And the Jets still went 4-12, which cost head coach Todd Bowles his job after four seasons.
The Right Man to Show Darnold How to Win?
Sam Darnold got a new coach, but few NFL head coaching hires have been as ridiculed as the New York Jets bringing in Adam Gase to replace Todd Bowles.
That's probably because the Jets picked Gase up off the scrap heap after he was fired by the Miami Dolphins after three seasons and a 23-25 overall record, including losing seasons in his final two years.
And there was nothing stranger than Gase's bizarre introductory news conference that proved one of the more meme-worthy sports moments of all time.
The Jets Kind of Showed Signs of Life, but the 'Ghosts' Got to Their Quarterback
The Jets showed some signs of life in 2019 under first-year head coach Gase and Darnold leading the way, but all the football world wanted to talk about was Darnold's performance in a 33-0 loss to the New England Patriots on Monday Night Football in which Darnold was caught saying he was "seeing ghosts" on the field.
For an already fragile fanbase, that's not the type of thing that will engender a lot of faith in a franchise quarterback, even though the Jets saw a five-game improvement from 2018 and went 7-9.
Then the Bottom Fell Out
Playing through the pandemic in 2020 proved to be the nail in the coffin for Darnold's time in New York — and for Gase's time as well.
Darnold battled shoulder injuries all year long as the Jets went 2-14. He threw for nine touchdowns and 13 interceptions, and his play was widely criticized for having taken a step back from a somewhat promising 2019.
Gase was fired after the season finale, and Robert Saleh was brought in as the new head coach, and rumors quickly started to swirl that Darnold was on the trading block.
Jets Find Another Savior
The 2021 NFL draft had one of the most stacked quarterback classes of all time, and the Jets and new head coach Robert Saleh quickly set their sights on landing one of the many talented signal-callers.
With the No. 2 overall pick and the Jacksonville Jaguars dead set on picking Trevor Lawrence at No. 1, the Jets finally settled on BYU quarterback Zach Wilson as the No. 2 pick.
Wilson was the fifth quarterback taken in the first or second round by the Jets since they picked Mark Sanchez No. 5 overall in 2009.
Darnold Heads Down South to Carolina
It turns out there were plenty of teams who were interested in Darnold and the best offer to the Jets came from the Carolina Panthers, who were ready to insert him in as starting quarterback.
In exchange for Darnold, the Jets received a sixth-round pick in 2021, second- and fourth-round picks in 2022.
The Panthers also agreed to pick up the fifth year option on Darnold's contract, giving him a guaranteed $18.85 million in 2022, bringing the total value of his rookie contract to $49.1 million.
It Didn't Take Long to Get Some Revenge, and It Was Sweet
As luck would have it, the Panthers faced the Jets in the opening game of the 2021 regular season and came away with a 19-14 win.
Darnold threw for 279 yards and one touchdown and rushed for another touchdown. His one touchdown pass came on a 57-yard bomb to Robby Anderson, another former Jet.
The fourth-year player played it cool. When asked if he felt any vindication beating the team that traded him, Darnold said, " No, not for me. I mean, I’m sure later tonight or tomorrow when I’m watching the game I’ll start to feel that, but it was just good to get a win."
Keep it Together, Sam
The Panthers were one of the more surprising stories in the NFL through the first month of the season with a 3-0 start, but then they came tumbling back to Earth with back-to-back losses to the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys.
Darnold only had one interception through the first three weeks of the season but threw five interceptions in the losses to the Eagles and Cowboys, including 179 passing yards and three interceptions against the Cowboys.
Can he ever live up to the hype? It's not looking so great, but as long as he still has a job, he still has a shot.