Sam Darnold had 1 play and 1 yard that proved the Panthers are in good hands without CMC

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If the Carolina Panthers are going to sustain this fast 3-0 start as the highway stretches out and the schedule starts to get tougher, Sam Darnold has to be the one pressing the gas pedal.

And one particular play Darnold made in Thursday night’s 24-9 road win over Houston gave me some confidence that he can do that — that things aren’t going to fall apart even though running back Christian McCaffrey is likely gone for multiple weeks with a strained hamstring.

The play was Darnold’s fourth-quarter QB sneak from the 1, the one in which his helmet got knocked off before he finally got pushed into the end zone by his teammates. That run had nothing pretty about it.

But that was also the play that was so different from the one that best symbolized Carolina’s lost 2020 season, when former quarterback Teddy Bridgewater also tried a sneak from the 1-yard line at Green Bay in December.

Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold, second from back right, pushes through the scrum toward the end zone in the fourth quarter Thursday. Darnold made it into the end zone to score a 1-yard touchdown, giving the Panthers their third touchdown and sealing their victory over the Texans, 24-9.
Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold, second from back right, pushes through the scrum toward the end zone in the fourth quarter Thursday. Darnold made it into the end zone to score a 1-yard touchdown, giving the Panthers their third touchdown and sealing their victory over the Texans, 24-9.

Bridgewater, though, went high, trying to jump over the pile, even though one of head coach Matt Rhule’s edicts is you don’t do that unless it’s fourth down. In that case, it was first down. The ball was batted out of Bridgewater’s hands and was returned 48 yards by a Packer defender. The play was “emblematic,” Rhule later said, and symbolized a 2020 team with decent talent that couldn’t finish drives or games.

This team, though?

It has a different leader in Darnold, and it is stacking up different sorts of results. Darnold knew the Rhule rule, too, and he went low instead of high and got pushed into the end zone by teammates. It was his second rushing TD of the game, and he also threw for 304 yards.

Like Cam Newton used to do, Darnold is impressing teammates in the trenches with his toughness.

“The guy is flat-out balling right now,” defensive end Haason Reddick said of Darnold.

“We got a good one, man,” offensive tackle Cam Erving added about his quarterback. “We got a good one, and he’s only gonna get better. ... All he needed was a change of scenery.”

Darnold was 13-25 as a starter in three desultory seasons with the New York Jets, but he’s 3-0 in Carolina. He throws the ball accurately on the move. And he’s surprisingly tough.

Said Rhule: “I think one thing about Sam is he has some moxie, man … I think he has a courageousness.”

It will be tested now, as Darnold copes without McCaffrey for the immediate future.

McCaffrey was “sad” after the game, Darnold said, after the running back left in the second quarter after pulling up lame on a sweep to the left. He may be placed on the short-term injured reserve list, although a return about halfway through the season seems likely based on the tentative timetable Rhule gave the media Friday.

This is McCaffrey’s fourth injury in the last 13 months. Afterward, Darnold said, he told McCaffrey: “Just that I’m thinking of him and to take his time.”

“We’ll be all right without him,” the quarterback continued. “Obviously, we want him back. But I want him to take his time right now and make sure he’s good for the end of the season.”

Did he think McCaffrey would be back? “Yeah,” Darnold said. “I mean, hopefully he will be. ... I’m being optimistic.”

Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey, center, hangs his head as he leaves the medical tent after a hamstring injury during the game against the Texans at NRG Stadium on Thursday, September 23, 2021 in Houston, TX.
Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey, center, hangs his head as he leaves the medical tent after a hamstring injury during the game against the Texans at NRG Stadium on Thursday, September 23, 2021 in Houston, TX.

Maybe he will; maybe he won’t. Hamstring injuries can stretch for a few weeks or a few months.

Without McCaffrey, the Panthers relied mainly on rookie Chuba Hubbard in the backfield as well as veteran Royce Freeman. But more was put on Darnold, too. He had a 32-yard run called back due to a holding penalty, as well as his two rushing scores (the other from 5 yards) and his 304 passing yards. He had several difficult third-down conversions where he found a target just when he was getting hit.

Darnold also held onto the ball too long in the first half and was stripped of it twice. Both were recovered by the Panthers. But he also ensured the Panthers never punted in the second half, as Carolina scored points on three of its four second-half possessions and ran out the clock on the fourth.

Darnold’s 1-yard TD with 4:07 to go constituted the game’s final points. “It was hectic,” Darnold said of the QB sneak. “There were a lot of things going on. I thought I got a great push back from — I don’t know who it was.”

Panthers tackle Cameron Erving, front center, mirrors a referee by holding his arms up to signify a touchdown after quarterback Sam Darnold pushed his way into the end zone during the game at NRG Stadium on Thursday, September 23, 2021 in Houston, TX. The Panthers beat the Texans 24-9, giving them their third win in a row to start the season.
Panthers tackle Cameron Erving, front center, mirrors a referee by holding his arms up to signify a touchdown after quarterback Sam Darnold pushed his way into the end zone during the game at NRG Stadium on Thursday, September 23, 2021 in Houston, TX. The Panthers beat the Texans 24-9, giving them their third win in a row to start the season.

For a half at least, the Panthers were fine without their most talented player. And they were fine even with cornerback Jaycee Horn (foot) and safety Juston Burris (groin) — two starters in the secondary — getting knocked out on the same Houston drive in the third quarter. Horn has three broken bones in his foot, Rhule said later, which is a terrible thing for the rookie who was Carolina’s first-round draft pick in April and may sideline him for the year.

Still, the Panthers have a quarterback who’s on a hot streak, and that’s as important as anything in football. The team can live without McCaffrey, if Darnold and the defense keep playing like this.

“We’re a football team,” Erving said. “We’re not called the Carolina Christian McCaffreys, you know…. It’s always hard playing without one of your best players, but at the end of the day, everybody understands that we have to step up and make plays.”

Darnold is making more of them than anyone else right now. And for a 3-0 team that doesn’t play again until Oct. 3 at Dallas, that’s a positive sign.

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