Sam Darnold has a fresh start in Carolina, and his first press conference as a Panther is officially in the books.
This new reality -- and the freedom from the enduring limbo that was his final season with the Jets -- is something he's wanted for a while now.
"That was tough. I'm not gonna lie," Darnold said of the uncertainty surrounding his third and last campaign in New York. "That was a tough part for me. Just because I'm a planner. I like to have things planned out, and what the next step was going to be and just the uncertainty there was, for lack of a better term, driving me insane. So now that I knew, when I found out, it was just such a relief to find out the news and understand where my next stop was gonna be."
His next stop is Charlotte, where the Panthers were ecstatic to acquire the former No. 3 overall pick as a presumed answer to their lingering question at quarterback. Panthers coach Matt Rhule wouldn't definitively name Darnold the starter on Monday, but as he said, Carolina envisions a long road ahead with Darnold, provided he can be a better version of himself than he was in New York, in large part because of his age.
"With the way quarterback drafts are going right now ... there's a lot of guys coming out early, and so that first couple years in the NFL are like their junior, senior year of college," Rhule explained Monday. "It's not like 10, 15 years ago, guys like Peyton Manning, who played a ton of football. Some of the guys that are coming out, they've been in the NFL for two, three years and they're 22, 23. Some other guys coming out right now are 20, 21.
"I just think with Sam, he's a young guy who came out early, and the football that he's played up until now is kind of like his junior and senior year, except it happened at the National Football League level. We're not getting a guy who's 27, 28, not that there's anything wrong with that. But we have a guy that's still young, still has a lot of football left in him. If things work out the way we hope they work out, we have a young player who can hopefully be with us for a while."
Darnold's natural ability that once wowed scouts during his time at USC and led to his selection near the very top of the 2018 draft remains. The question has long centered more on the capability of his surrounding cast than anything. Sure, Darnold experienced his own struggles, but how much of it was exacerbated by the Jets' inability to support him with quality teammates?
The answer to that won't come for some time, but it's clear that Darnold is walking into a better situation than the one he left via trade. And if it ends up being true that the biggest hurdle for Darnold wasn't himself, but his lack of help, this trade will end up being a boon for the Panthers.
As far as Rhule is concerned, the tape holds up -- at least the flashes of potential within it.
"I don't think there's a game that you watch where he doesn't make a play that makes you say 'There it is,'" Rhule said. "I think his arm talent and his movement are a great fit for the players that we have here that he'll be playing with."
Darnold joins a Panthers offense that includes former Jets teammate Robby Anderson and is coordinated by Joe Brady, the offensive wunderkind who once oversaw Joe Burrow's leap from passable signal-caller at LSU to Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 overall pick. If Brady and Rhule can have a similar effect on Darnold, Carolina will have acquired its franchise quarterback. The Panthers likely wouldn't have made such a move if they didn't believe such an outcome was possible, with Rhule saying as much Monday, telling reporters "we think he can play at a really high level."
Darnold expects the same of himself, even after wading through the football abyss that was the Jets for the last three years.
"I think, for me, any time you go somewhere and you set lofty goals and those goals aren't met, that's always tough for me. When I heard the news that they wanted to trade me, it was tough," Darnold said of the Jets. "Any time you're not wanted somewhere, that's always a tough pill to swallow.
"But then it was the opposite feeling. You go from being unwanted, and then all of a sudden the people in Carolina wanted me and obviously traded for me, and you go from being unwanted to wanted. ... When the trade went down, obviously like I said, things didn't work out the way I wanted to in New York, but I was just so excited for a fresh start and a new opportunity. It was bittersweet, but meeting the people around here and getting to know everyone, what the agenda is around here, I'm just very thrilled and excited to get going."
While it's not yet set in stone, it's possible Darnold, Rhule, Brady and Co. will have the benefit of an offseason that wasn't afforded to them a year ago, just months before Rhule began his first season as an NFL head coach. That time will be valuable for both the staff and Darnold as they begin to build a rapport that they hope will take their offense to new heights.
For now, the potential remains as high as the optimism in the building. Time will tell whether Darnold's play reaches the same level.