Jets fans will probably want to stop paying much attention to Panthers games.
Sam Darnold had quietly put the Panthers up 2-0 to begin his Carolina career. Thursday night, he added a win in prime time, the first time he has won under center stage since 2018.
His new team is now 3-0. His old team is 0-2, and the new guy just threw four interceptions. But is Darnold looking back at his time with the Jets? Not quite.
“I don’t want to talk too much about New York, to be honest with you. That’s in the past for me,” Darnold said after the “Thursday Night Football” matchup against the Texans.
Darnold led the Panthers to a 24-9 win against Houston. He didn’t throw any touchdown passes, but he scored twice on the ground and completed 23-of-34 passes for 304 yards and didn’t turn the ball over.
And here’s a look at just how he did it in the air.
Sam Darnold Passing Chart vs Texans 🎯
Darnold finished 9/11 for 198 yards on passes traveling 10+ air yards, completing +24.7% of passes over expected according to our completion probability model, a new career-high.#CARvsHOU | Powered by @awscloud pic.twitter.com/EQ2LTxIVBC
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) September 24, 2021
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Just in this game alone, it’s easy to see the turnaround from last year.
Darnold was within average or below average in nearly every region across the field last season. He was especially poor on passes that traveled more than 10 yards as his passer rating was below league average in every section of the field except one after 10 yards.
According to Pro Football Reference, he had no poor throws — pass attempts with little chance of being caught — and his completed passes averaged nine yards in the air prior to completion.
There are some overall numbers that don’t look as positive. His intended air yards per pass attempt — regardless of completion — is the lowest it’s ever been at 6.2 yards, and only 52.9 percent of his passes have been on target, also a career-low, per Pro Football Reference.
NFL Savant data shows that, so far, the early game plan might have been to mitigate turnover risk. Through his first two games, 57 of his passes were considered short left or short right. According to 2020 play-by-play data, those two zones had the fewest interceptions per pass attempt at just 1.3 percent and 1.6 percent, respectively, while 8.5 percent of deep middle passes were intercepted. Coming into Thursday’s game, Darnold had not attempted a deep middle pass and his chart from Thursday shows he again kept the ball mostly out of the middle of the field.
But on Thursday, Darnold showed that he can throw the deep ball more effectively than he has in the past by completing 4-of-6 pass attempts 15 yards in the air or farther. And still, he kept it to the sides of the field, which keeps it safer than over the middle — 4.2 percent of deep left passes and 4.8 percent of deep right passes were picked in 2020.
The Panthers haven’t faced a huge test yet, with the Saints representing the toughest team they’ve had to play this year, so it still might be too early to say whether Darnold is finally living up to the hype. But the early returns are promising, and Thursday he gave Panthers fans even more reason to believe he might be primed for a breakout campaign.