Is history stacked against Sam Darnold's success? Panthers don't think so

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- History may not seem like it's on the side of Carolina Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold, who was acquired in a trade with the New York Jets last week.

It shows quarterbacks selected with high draft picks that struggle with their first team continue to struggle in their second, or even third, stop. It shows the early damage done mentally, physically or both makes it unlikely that quarterback will lead his next team to a Super Bowl.

The NFL landscape is littered with college stars such as Ryan Leaf, JaMarcus Russell and Heath Shuler who have walked in Darnold’s cleats, entering the league with lofty expectations and leaving with unfulfilled dreams.

There are some notable exceptions, though.

• Steve Young, after starting his career in the USFL, went 3-16 in his first two NFL seasons in Tampa Bay before becoming a Hall of Famer with San Francisco. And even that came after the first pick of the 1984 supplemental draft was a backup to Joe Montana with the 49ers for four seasons.

• Vinny Testaverde, the No. 1 pick in 1987 who interestingly was drafted to replace Young, went 24-48 in six seasons with Tampa Bay before signing with Cleveland, where he took the Browns to the playoffs in 1994. He also led the Jets to the playoffs twice, including the AFC Championship Game in the 1998 season.

• Jim Plunkett, the first overall pick in 1971, struggled in New England and San Francisco before going to the Raiders, where he won two Super Bowls -- at age 33 and 36 -- even though he never put up big numbers.

• Jeff George, the No. 1 overall pick in 1990, was 14-35 in four seasons with the Indianapolis Colts before reviving his career -- at least statistically -- with Atlanta for a couple of seasons before enjoying brief success with Oakland and then Minnesota, where he recorded his only playoff victory.

• A more recent example is Ryan Tannehill, the No. 8 overall pick in 2012. Tannehill went 42-46 in seven years in Miami, and never played in a playoff game, before being traded to Tennessee. In his two seasons with the Titans, he is 18-8 as a starter and has reached the playoffs both seasons, including a trip to the AFC Championship Game in 2019.

So what makes the Panthers believe Darnold, who went 13-25 in three seasons with the Jets after being selected with the third pick of the 2018 draft, can be one of the exceptions?

“I look at every player on an individual basis," Panthers coach Matt Rhule said a week after trading for the former USC star. “Sam or any other player’s lack of success has nothing to do with what’s happened to other people in similar situations.

“It comes down to him, comes down to the work he puts in, the situation we have here. We believe in Sam. We believe in his skill set. We believe in his approach."

The Jets believed in Darnold in 2018 when they drafted him. They believed in him in 2019 when Joe Douglas took over as general manager. Douglas went so far as to promise Darnold’s mother he was “going to do everything in [his] power to take care of Sam with protection and playmakers."

Then on April 5, Douglas traded Darnold to the Panthers for a sixth-rounder in 2021, and second- and fourth-rounders in 2022, to presumably take BYU quarterback Zach Wilson with the second pick of the upcoming draft.

Now the Panthers, who a year ago believed in Teddy Bridgewater, believe in Darnold.

“I’m just coming in with an open mind, just seeking for a great opportunity to lead this football team and move the ball up and down the field and score touchdowns," Darnold said. “I have a great opportunity to do that."

Hall of Fame executive Bill Polian, for one, believes that’s a possibility, that the deck isn’t completely stacked against a player who won’t turn 24 until June.

“When you go to a bad team, two things happen," Polian said. “You press and that hurts your mechanics. Then you’re exposed to injury. It happened to Jim Plunkett. It happened to Carson Wentz.

“There’s room for growth with the Panthers. They’re absolutely on the right track with every move they’ve made. There’s still work to do. This is a work in progress and Sam has to understand that."

Polian had his share of star quarterbacks, including Jim Kelly in Buffalo and Peyton Manning in Indianapolis. He knows neither of them would have been successful had he not put a solid team around them.

“If you’re going to win the Super Bowl, you have to have, if not a dominant defense, a really good defense," he said. “The stars have to align. You have to have all the parts on every side of the ball, including the kicker."

Rhule gets that. He repeatedly said Monday his goal was to build a complete team, not a complete quarterback. He reminded there are Hall of Fame quarterbacks who never won a Super Bowl.

Rhule also believes Darnold is salvageable, even though the Jets gave up on him. He believes pairing Darnold with running back Christian McCaffrey, wide receivers DJ Moore and Robby Anderson, and building a sturdy offensive line will give his quarterback a chance to show off the skills that made him a high pick.

“You see his arm talent," Rhule said. “I don’t think there’s a game you watch where he doesn’t make a play that makes you say, ‘There it is.’ He can fit the ball into tight windows and create with his feet. He moves around a ton. He extends plays with his legs.

“His arm talent and movement are a great fit for the players we have here that he’ll be playing with."

More often than not, quarterbacks drafted high go to bad teams, increasing their likelihood of failure. They often go to bad teams on their second stop, as well.

Darnold has been with a bad team in New York and, even worse, was surrounded by what many analysts believe was a bad coaching staff, led by Adam Gase.

The Panthers, despite three straight losing seasons, are six years removed from going to the Super Bowl. And they have a coach entering his second NFL season who has a reputation for turning college programs around at Temple and Baylor.

He also is known as a great teacher.

Darnold said the culture Rhule is trying to build was obvious the moment he stepped into Bank of America Stadium.

“The agenda is set," he said. “It’s all about ball here."

The Panthers are hopeful Darnold coming to Carolina will resemble what Tannehill has done in Tennessee.

“We brought Sam in because we think he can play at a high level," Rhule said. “Don’t take things that happen in other places and hold them to fast and hard truth."