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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Carolina Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold wouldn’t say anything bad about the New York Jets heading into Sunday’s opener at Bank of America Stadium, but he made his former team look bad in the Panthers’ 19-14 victory.
The third pick of the 2018 draft threw for 234 yards in the first half, 16 more than in any first half in his previous three seasons in New York. That included a 57-yard touchdown to former Jets receiver Robby Anderson, his favorite target in 2018-19.
Darnold also ran for a 5-yard touchdown on a quarterback draw late in the first half to give Carolina a 16-0 lead.
Afterward, when asked whether it was just another game as he had been insisting, Darnold smiled and said, “I’m not going to lie. Seeing them on the other side, that was a little different for me.”
Asked later whether he got satisfaction from beating the team that traded him, Darnold deadpanned, “No.”
Carolina coach Matt Rhule said he would be lying if he said there weren’t concerns about how Darnold was going to react against his former team.
“I had a lot of concerns,” he said. “I was anxious to see how he would be in terms of playing the Jets. It looked like he had fun the whole day. There was not a moment where I said, ‘Hey, calm down. Hang in there.’ He was great.
“For him, this was probably a real step forward.”
Rhule went so far as to say Darnold “played excellent.”
“He hung in the pocket,” he said. “We weren’t great up front, but he hung in there and moved around, found guys down the field, made key third-down throws, protected the football.
“I thought Sam played well for his first game.”
None of the Jets were asked postgame about Darnold and his performance.
Accuracy — an issue for Darnold in New York, where he completed only 59.8% of his passes in 38 games — wasn’t one for him this day. He completed 24 of 35 attempts (68.6%) for 279 yards and a touchdown.
He had no interceptions, another issue for him in New York, where he threw almost as many picks as he did touchdowns.
Darnold was particularly effective against the blitz, especially in the first half. He completed 8 of 9 attempts for 94 yards. Last season, his 55.6% completion percentage against the blitz ranked 32nd among 35 qualified quarterbacks, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
That Darnold’s biggest play went to Anderson should come as no surprise. Anderson was his favorite target with the Jets in 2018-19. The two teamed for 88 receptions for 11 touchdowns.
The 57-yarder was Darnold’s fourth-longest touchdown pass, and three have gone to Anderson. A 92-yarder in 2019 and a 76-yarder in 2018 were the other two.
It’s also no surprise that Darnold relied heavily on McCaffrey. One of the reasons the Panthers felt comfortable trading for the former USC star was the belief that he would prosper in his new surroundings because he would be surrounded by more playmakers.
Of Carolina’s 153 yards in the first half, McCaffrey had 83 — 32 rushing and 51 receiving. McCaffrey finished with 187 total yards, 98 rushing on 21 attempts and 89 receiving on nine catches.
McCaffrey wasn’t surprised at all by Darnold’s performance and that his quarterback wasn’t overwhelmed by playing his former team.
“Sam, I’ve never seen him different,” McCaffrey said. “Since OTAs, he’s been the same guy. He comes to work every day. A first-one-in, first-one-out guy. We’re just lucky to have him.”
Darnold also relied on wide receiver DJ Moore, who finished with six catches for 80 yards.
The offensive line also protected Darnold well, giving up only one sack. Darnold was sacked 98 times in three seasons with the Jets.
The red zone, however, remains an issue. The Panthers scored only one touchdown in four trips inside the 10-yard line.
The real key for Darnold will be playing well against tougher competition, beginning with next week’s game against the New Orleans Saints.
“We’ll have to wait and see how he plays as we move forward,” Rhule said. “My job is to help him play well, not to see if he plays well.”
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